Jobs and Skills

Workplace harassment in South Asia restricts female progress: here's how to make workspaces safer

 Two women working in an office, illustrating the need to eliminate workplace harassment

Workplace harassment must be eliminated Image: Photo by Michelle Ding on Unsplash

Rida Tahir
Barrister-at-law and an Advocate of the High Courts of Pakistan, Global Shaper, Karachi Hub
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Jobs and Skills

  • South Asia has the second lowest female labour force participation in the world with a high level of workplace harassment.
  • Workplace harassment inflicts harm on the victims/survivors and limits their career and education opportunities.
  • Here’s how South Asian communities can create safer workplaces.

South Asia has the second lowest female labour force participation in the world, at only 25%, with a high level of workplace harassment. About 30-40% of women in South Asia acknowledge suffering sexual harassment in the workplace. Workplace harassment is a form of gender-based violence. It is a severe violation of the human rights of women.

Workplace harassment can be defined as any written, physical or verbal conduct that causes an intimidating, hostile, humiliating or threatening work environment for the victim/survivor. It can also include unwelcome forms of sexual conduct, such as sexual demands or requests for sexual favours. Workplace harassment inflicts harm on the victims/survivors and limits their career and education opportunities. It is a barrier to women’s economic empowerment, which is essential for achieving social justice and reducing poverty.

Here’s how South Asian communities can create safer workplaces to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) on gender, particularly Goal 5: “achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls,” and Goal 8: "decent work and economic growth.’’

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1. Grievance redressal mechanisms in the workplace

Employers have a responsibility to provide a workplace environment free from harassment. Establishing a grievance redressal mechanism provides employees with a formal route for raising a problem or complaint regarding harassment in the workplace. A formal grievance redressal mechanism in the workplace can quickly and confidentially resolve disputes, thereby protecting employees and increasing their confidence at work. The grievance redressal mechanism established in the workplace, however, must be transparent, impartial and confidential.

It must follow written and approved standard operating procedures and codes of conduct outlining the process that will be followed by the grievance redressal committee, such as an investigation, decision and consequences (penalties for those held responsible for workplace harassment), and the appeal process, etc. This makes the process easier and more consistent. It also increases an employee’s confidence in the grievance redressal mechanism for resolving disputes, hence encouraging reporting, resolving complaints and eliminating workplace harassment.

2. Enactment of special laws on workplace harassment

Many South Asian countries lack comprehensive legislation addressing workplace harassment. From 2020–22, the South Asia region had the lowest regional average of the number of women’s rights reforms implemented. Bangladesh, for example, is yet to develop and enact comprehensive and specific laws that define and prohibit harassment in the workplace.

Similarly, in Sri Lanka, there is no specific and single comprehensive law on discriminatory practices at work. Recently, Pakistan amended the Protection Against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010, a federal law, to include ‘discrimination on the basis of gender’ in the definition of workplace harassment. Nevertheless, the second largest Province by population in Pakistan, Sindh, does not have a special law on workplace harassment. This is why the Karachi Hub of the Global Shapers Community has initiated a project called ‘Musawat’ (which means Equality) to work with the government of Sindh to enact a special law in Sindh Province to protect workers from harassment.

Enacting special laws to outlaw workplace harassment and provide protection to women promotes gender equality in the workplace. Laws that encourage equal treatment of employees and prohibit workplace harassment encourage greater participation of women in the workforce. These also enhance retention rates and facilitate female advancement to managerial positions, empower women to assume influential roles and inspire other women to participate in the labour force of the country.

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3. Gender-sensitization training for employees

Prevention is the best tool for eliminating harassment at work. Workplace harassment can be prevented through regular gender sensitisation and capacity-building training at all levels. The training can consist of the laws prevailing in the country regarding workplace harassment, information regarding the grievance redressal mechanisms at work, what constitutes workplace harassment, how employees suffering from workplace harassment can take action and the harms of workplace harassment, along with the advantages that organizations can gain from eliminating workplace harassment.

In India, participants of gender sensitization training acknowledged that it was one of the most legitimate and direct ways to address gender-based bullying, gender inequality, discrimination and violence in the workplace. Gender sensitization trainings aid the process of creating an inclusive workplace and promote an environment free from harassment.

The South Asia region must ensure full, equal and fair participation of women in the workplace. This will increase the female labour force participation in the region. By combining the three approaches outlined above, we can work towards tackling workplace harassment in South Asian communities to reduce gender inequality and empower all women. But we must begin today.

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