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Safety in the streets

A viral video of a public flasher caught in the act leads to the man’s arrest and sparks a discussion about societal attitudes towards women and redressal mechanisms

Safety in the streets

According to a Thomson Reuters Foundation (TRF) survey conducted in 2018, Pakistan is the sixth most dangerous country for women. Pakistan is also ranked fifth in non-sexual violence against women and seventh in sexual violence and harassment.

Street harassment is a manifestation of this problem. In particular, it jeopardises the safety of young women and girls. Street harassment is a broad term and comprises unwanted whistling, leering, sexist, homophobic or transphobic slurs, persistent requests for someone’s name, number or destination after they’ve said no, sexually explicit comments and demands, stalking, flashing, public masturbation, groping, sexual assault, and rape.

Under Section 509 of the Pakistan Penal Code (PPC), “Insulting the modesty of women or sexually harassing them, is a crime. Perpetrators of this crime may be punished with imprisonment, which may extend to 3 years or to a fine up to Rs500,000 or with both.”

A few days back, a social media user uploaded a video saying, “Today at 6 pm this guy (later identified) was near Thokar Niaz Baig jerking off [while] looking at me. I was in a decent dress. Nobody can say I provoked him to masturbate. A lot of girls face this.”

Shortly afterwards, there was another post where a woman spoke of a similar experience with the man. Both complainants demanded that the police take action.

In response, the CCPO (Capital City Police Officer) BA Nasir asked the relevant police station to arrest the man. Tayyab was arrested by Chuung police and an FIR (First Information Report) was registered under Section 294 and 268 of PPC.

However, the FIR missed the relevant Section 509: introduced in 2010 which exclusively handles sexual harassment.

Ansar Shah, an advocate of the High Court says that Section 294 applies to a person who gets engaged in an obscene act, or singing, reciting or uttering obscene songs, ballads or words, in or near a public place. Section 268 only defines a person’s crime as causing a nuisance, common injury, danger, and annoyance to the public or any person occupying property in the vicinity: it doesn’t pronounce any punishment.

Shah says that the constable who registered the FIR either didn’t know about Section 509 or he intentionally evaded it. “The concerned authority ignored the gravity of an act of explicit nature. This might allow the perpetrator to escape lawfully deserved imprisonment: under Section 294 such offence is punishable with imprisonment for a maximum term of three months or fine. Nevertheless, the punishment under Section 509 may extend to three years’ imprisonment or fine up to Rs 500,000 or both.”

Ansar Shah, an advocate of the High Court says that Section 294 applies to a person who engages in an obscene act, or singing, reciting or uttering obscene songs, ballads or words, in or near a public place.

Talking to TNS, CCPO Nasir praised bravery of the women who raised their voices against sexual harassment and brought the issue to the authority’s notice. “I believe that if women keep doing this, the police can eliminate occurrence of such incidents and arrest culprits”.

On the question of not charging Tayyeb under Section 509, a spokesperson for the CCPO informed TNS that a direction had been issued by the CCPO to the police station concerned to include Section 509.

The point of concern here is not only harassment in the streets but also societal attitudes towards women, especially when they step into public spaces.

Former PCSW (Punjab Commission on Status of Women) chairperson Fauzia Waqar says that street harassment is a human rights issue because it limits harassed persons’ ability to be in public, especially in the case women. “It is also a harmful and serious social ill because it falls along a spectrum of violence. It can start as verbal harassment and escalate to sexual assault and rape— even murder.”

In December 2018, a study titled Women’s Safety Audit in Public Transport in Lahore was designed and commissioned by Punjab Women’s Development Department (WDD), and UN Women Pakistan. It was carried out by the Aurat Foundation and funded by the Australian government.

About 82 percent of women commuters reported facing harassment at bus stops. The most common forms of sexual harassment at bus stops include staring, stalking, obscene gestures, whistling, passing sexual comments, and non-consensual touching.

Psychologist at Digital Rights Foundations, Jannat Fazal agrees that street harassment limits women’s mobility and jeopardises their mental peace, making it a gender equality and human rights issue. She suggests that “Society needs to stop re-victimising the victims of sexual assault: ‘What were you wearing?’ ‘Did you resist?’ ‘Are you sure he knew you didn’t want it?’”

Instead, she says, “society should focus its efforts on teaching perpetrators of this crime that people’s boundaries and rights must be respected at all times.”

On November 20, 2018, the General Assembly of the United Nations adopted the first resolution on sexual harassment, urging states to recognise the current situation of violence against women and girls. In addition, the resolution aims to eliminate structural causes and risk factors in order to better protect victims from all forms of violence, including sexual harassment.  

The Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) draft identifies discrimination against women and their exploitation among biggest hindrances to sustainable development.

Zia ur Rehman, head of Awaz Centre for Development Studies says that the SDG-5 talks about the goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and Target 5.1 under this goal suggests ending all forms of discrimination against women and girls everywhere.

“Target 5.2 is about elimination of all forms of violence against females in public as well as private spheres, including trafficking, and sexual as well as other forms of exploitation. Target 5.5 talks about ensuring women’s full and effective participation as well as equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life”, he adds.

According to Plan International, an independent development and humanitarian organisation that works for the advancement of the rights of women and children, for the first time in history, there are more people living in cities than in rural areas. According to the organisation’s estimates, each month, 5 million people are added to the cities in developing countries. By 2030, this will mean approximately 700 million girls will live in urban areas. These statistics come with lessons for Pakistan.

“The SDG-11 is about making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. Rehman notes, “Women in our cities face sexual harassment, exploitation, and insecurity as they navigate the urban environment. Therefore, we need to change the society to introduce new laws, and amend the existing ones to ensure the safety of women and prevent all kinds of violence and harassment against women”.

Local government

According to the Women’s Safety Audit in Public Transport in Lahore report, about 98 percent of respondents are unaware of emergency helplines or mobile phone apps where they can report sexual harassment. But, if you’re in Lahore and need to report an incident of sexual harassment, help is available. Since January 2017, the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) and the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) has launched the ‘Women Safety Smart Phone Application’. To register yourself on the app, you need your CNIC number. This verifies your account and enables PSCA to come to the aid of women in emergency situations by providing quick and ensured emergency response at the precise location. Key features of the app are: mark women friendly places on map; safe journey planner for women; panic/emergency response button for women; Awareness literature about rights of women and anti-harassment laws. By pressing the panic button, you are put through to the emergency 15 service of the PSCA; help is supposed to reach you, at your precise location, in 7 to 10 minutes. However, according to a source within the PSCA, since Januray 2019, the operational charge has been given to PCSW, and therefore, the duration of quick response may vary now. The source also revealed that downloads have crossed more than 17,000 and more than seventy users are men. Waqar explains why this might be the case: “Primarily, this app has been launched to provide a safe atmosphere to women, however, the users have the facility to report about the unavailability of street-lights, footpaths, and bus stops. The limitation of this app is that it can only be downloaded on Android phones.”

Shehryar Warraich

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The author is a member of the staff and can be reached at [email protected]

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