Investment in gender equality is smart economics, according to the recently launched World Development Report (WDR 2012)  of the World Bank. Increasing women’s access to resources and participation in economic opportunities can increase productivity, improve outcomes for children and improve the overall development prospects of a country, concludes the report. However, a number of factors, mainly gender roles guided by staunch social norms and rigid institutional practices, have impeded recognition of women’s participation and contributions in economic activities. To address this issue, WDR proposes focused domestic public policies. In a recently held brown bag luncheon at the Bank, Dr. Fouzia Saeed shared her experience regarding these topics, and the resultant groundbreaking legislation in protection and promotion of Pakistani women’s rights and contributions to their country’s development.
The thrust of the movement led by Dr. Saeed has been to create a safe and supporting environment for women to join the workforce in Pakistan. For the last several years, the government in Pakistan has been trying to increase the number of women employees; however, even the minimum quota of 5% has remained unfilled. This, according to Dr. Saeed, can be attributed to an unfavorable workplace environment for women. As a South Asian woman who has held professional positions in that region, I am much too familiar with the antagonistic workplace environment that can be so demoralizing for women. Even the home environment has a profound impact on a woman’s aspiration and the confidence to enter the workforce. The patriarchal structure at home, commonplace in that area of the world, tends to hinder the development of women’s decision-making skills. Male children are held in much higher regard than that their female counterparts. These same biased practices at home can, and often do, percolate into the work environment, inhibiting women from exercising their full potential. When half of the population is exposed to such distress, it can have negative implications for socio-economic growth at the national level.
Given such a scenario, how does one go about breaking this mold? Dr. Saeed, in her presentation, explained how in a country with a contentious social climate for women, as in Pakistan, a citizens’ movement was able to shepherd initiatives and build consensus into passing a piece of legislation aimed at promoting safe working environments for women. Dr. Saeed laid out several strategies that led to the success of the movement, some of which are as follows:
• A thorough research was conducted to identify factors that impeded women’s access to employment opportunities. Sexual harassment (including psychological intimidation and unsupportive institutional policy and practices) was identified as one of the main reasons.
• In response to these findings, service-oriented organizations and those that were working on the gender dimension of labor issues and violence against women, formed a group, called AASHA (Alliance Against Sexual Harassment) with the objective of influencing policy makers to provide protection for women in the work place and ensuring a safe and healthy working environment.
• The movement focused on a specific objective – to get the issue recognized and accepted at the policy level and then turned into legislation. The awareness generation was a by-product of this objective.
• Adjustments were made to the use of the language to fit the cultural context. For instance, when the word, “sexual” proved controversial, “Code of Conduct for Gender Justice,” was used, instead of “Sexual Harassment Policy.” Similarly, “gender equality” was replaced by “protection of women’s dignity,” a frame consistent with Islamic values.
• The campaign message focused on “increasing productivity,” to highlight problems as well as the overall impact associated with harassment, which gained instant support and endorsement from the private sector.
• The movement reached out to broad stakeholders. The alliance worked in close collaboration with senior officials of the Government and engaged labor unions, private sector, civil society organizations, academia and working women. More than 300 organizations supported the cause and adopted the proposed policy in their work programs.
• AASHA awards were given once a year to acknowledge the sustained efforts of the progressive employers among the private sector who had successfully implemented the anti sexual harassment policy in their organizations.
• A politically sensitive entry point was sought to reach out to parliamentarians, who would be supportive of the cause. The movement wanted all parties to champion their cause, to avoid it from being used as an instrument for political partisanship. Women parliamentarians representing different parties became supportive alliance members and a uniting force.
After five years of effort in getting the policy adopted by the private sector, it took an additional two years of persistence and hard work to gain support from the cabinet, parliament and the senate to pass the legislation. The bill was unanimously passed by the National Assembly and then by a heavy majority by the Senate. The President signed the bill on the 9th of March, 2010.
The purpose of the bill is to institute a Code of Conduct, which is basically an anti-sexual harassment policy, in every registered organization in Pakistan. As stated in the AASHA website, within five months of the legislation being enacted, most of the ministries and governmental departments have adopted the Code at the federal level and are requesting their provincial departments to do the same. Additionally, a National Implementation Framework was formulated by AASHA and shared with the government, civil society and the donor community for coordinated efforts of proper implementation.
This achievement is the result of a ten-year long citizens’ movement that worked in partnership with the Government.
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