Nov 06, 2009
The National Assembly of Pakistan has unanimously passed a bill to provide for a higher punishment for sexual harassment. In a rare show of concern for women without a dissent, the lawmakers have expanded the definition of the crime to facilitate prosecution.
Islamabad: The Criminal Law (Amendment) Bill, which must be passed by the Senate as well to become law, amends both the Pakistan Penal Code and the Code of Criminal Procedure, increasing the punishment for the crime to up to three years in prison and a fine of up to Rs 500,000 from up to one year and unspecified fine already provided in the PPC for a vague ‘insult (to) the modesty of a woman’.
The draft, fruit of a campaign by women activists, was introduced in the house early this year by then information minister Sherry Rehman, who won special plaudits from both sides of the house during speeches after the bill, already approved by a 16-member standing committee on law with Prime Minister Yousuf Raza Gilani cited as its minister-in-charge, was passed without a debate.
However, some members from the both treasury and opposition benches voiced fears about the possibility of misuse of the new law, particularly in rural areas to settle scores, though some others dismissed such concerns, and called for an effective implementation, possibly with amendments in other relevant law and rules governing police.
The bill is the second passed by the present 19-month-old lower in three months, the first being a private bill adopted by it in early August – and later by the Senate – to provide for monetary and other relief to sufferers of domestic like women, children and other vulnerable persons such as the elderly and domestic servants.
It will be followed by another pro-women bill, designed to make provisions for their protection against harassment at workplaces, which was put on the agenda of the house on Monday but was put off because of an opposition walkout to protest against the controversial National Reconciliation Ordinance of former military ruler Pervez Musharraf that the government later decided not to bring for approval.
‘Harassment is one of the most common issues faced by the women of Pakistan,’ a statement of objects and reasons accompanying the new bill said. ‘They face intimidation in the marketplace, in buses, at bus stops and at workplace.’
It said this issue alone inhibited most women to move out of their houses for education, availing medical facilities and earning a livelihood.
The statement said that although the PPC already had some sections that ‘attempt to address sexual harassment to a certain extent, (their) the terminology is vague’ and open to interpretation.
It said the new amendment was ‘in the same spirit’ as of the PPC’s original section 509 and other relevant clauses providing protection to women but that it ‘elaborates and specifies what constitutes harassment of women in public, private and workplaces’.
‘This amendment will not only make public and work environment safer for women but will open up the path for more women to pursue livelihood with dignity,’ the statement said. ‘It will reduce poverty as more and more women will get the courage to enter the job market.’
The existing brief section 509 of the PPC on the subject of ‘word, gesture or act intended to insult the modesty of a woman’, defines the culprit as one ‘intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman’.
The proposed new section 509 with modified title of ‘insulting modesty or causing sexual harassment’, additionally defines the culprit as one who conducts sexual advances, or demands sexual favours or uses verbal or non-verbal communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature which intends to annoy, insult, intimidate or threaten the other person or commits such acts at the premises of workplace, or makes submission to such conduct either explicitly or implicitly a term or condition of an individual’s employment, or makes submission to or rejection of such conduct by an individual a basis for employment decision affecting such individual, or retaliates because of rejection of such behaviour, or conducts such behaviour with the intention of unreasonably interfering with an individual’s work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive working environment.