​ISLAMABAD:  Majority of the universities in the Islamabad have no effective mechanism to stop sexual harassment.

The law which gives legal protection is unknown, making students vulnerable to the offence.

“We prefer to ignore it. Otherwise we have to bear the consequences if we take the issue or the person head on,” Engineering student Maryam Ali of the Federal Urdu University of Arts Science and Technology in Islamabad, told News Lens Pakistan.

“We are bound to fail and be the target of that teacher and even his friends if we take them on.”

The case of Ali is a litmus test in educational institutes.

There are no sexual harassment committees to oversee. There is no law that protects victims or bring the offenders to book.

News Lens Pakistan checked websites of the universities and sought details from their public relations departments. Except for the National University of Science and Technology, none of the other dozen-plus universities in Islamabad has any clear awareness of sexual harassment policies or penalties.

After the passage of Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010 the Higher Education Commission of Pakistan adopted the law and issued a booklet. The Act establishes inquiry committees, each of which must include one female.

Legal ladder

In 2014, media reported that Islamabad’s National University of Modern Languages flouted the HEC’s policy guideline when an all-male committee of three members was set up to investigate a harassment complaint. A woman was later added to the committee when the accused refused to appear before the committee. The accused professor was removed from his position as head of department, only to be appointed head of another department, despite the recommendations of sexual harassment committee that he should not be given any supervisory or departmental head’s role.

In a harassment case at Quaid-e-Azam University, a teacher from Biological Sciences was removed from his post. He was later reinstated by then President Asif Ali Zardari. The Public Relations Officer of the university told News Lens Pakistan that the President replied with a note of Ministry of Law and Justice, “The law of harassment does not apply to students because they are not employees.”

It was the first time when such major lacuna in the law was raised by the Ministry of Law and Justice which legally vets and approves the legislation drafts in the country. On February 27, a senior official of Ministry of Law and Justice, Sajjad Shah told the parliamentary committee on human rights that the law passed in 2010 did not apply to educational institutes as the law “does talk about employee-against-employee but not employee-against-student.”

The issue was being discussed at the request of MNA Asiya Nasir who wanted to amend the 2010 bill passed by parliament to bring students under the law against harassment.

Shah’s statement was shocking to all members of the parliamentary committee which were majority females, already supporting the suggested amendment.

Shah informed the committee that there was no need to amend the law as Article 509 of the Constitution covers all kind of harassment against women at any place with some penalties.

VC of QAU Javed Ashraf said the university has a disciplinary committee which takes action if any such complaints are received from students or employees against someone.

“Students are vigilant and smart these days and they know much about such activities and that how and where to report,” he told News Lens Pakistan.

“The varsity has not received any complaints during the last year, which is testament to the fact that we have strict disciplinary action,” the VC said.

When several students were asked if they knew about any such body or committee to report such incidents, several female students expressed ignorance.

“We have not heard of any sexual harassment committee because there is nothing in prospectus, nor any awareness in the departments about the issue,” a Biological Sciences student, who did not wish to be named, told News Lens Pakistan.

Former vice chancellor of Quaid-e-Azam University Masoom Yasinzai is now rector of IIUI.

He could not justify the absence of anti-harassment committee and lack of awareness at campus.

“We have strong authoritative disciplinary committees which deal with such issues strictly and leave no stone unturned to get to the bottom of the issue and find the culprit,” Yasinzai told News Lens Pakistan.

HEC’s media director Aayesha Ikram said the need for referring cases to the HEC ends with the enforcement of the Protection against Harassment of Women at Workplace Act 2010.

“During the last 12 months, only one harassment case was reported to HEC,” Ikram told News Lens Pakistan by email.

That case was picked up by the Federal Ombudsman for Protection against Harassment of Women in the Workplace.

At Comsats Institute of Information Technology, four architecture students blamed a teacher for not only harassing but physically harming the students. The case is still being heard by a committee, the Rector of the university told News Lens Pakistan.

Comsats Executive Director, Dr Junaid Zaid told News Lens Pakistan that all efforts were being made to investigate the students’ complaints.

“After all the confusion that prevails around the sexual harassment law, one can be sure that unwillingness on every part is what can be called a crime and inhuman, especially when students are involved,” Khawar Mumtaz, chairperson National Commission on Status of Women told News Lens Pakistan.

She said a desk would be formed at the commission’s office to look into the matter.

“I still cannot  understand if the situation remains in such disarray then who will protect our daughters in education institutions and advise them about handling such situations,” MNA Asiya Nasir said.

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