THE conflict within gender is mostly highlighted through demarcation of responsibilities and accessibility of spaces. The 11 years of martial law in Pakistan under Gen Zia ul Haq from 1977 to 1988, became a huge obstacle for the female population of the country in terms of their academic qualifications and careers. While females across the world progressed in a variety of fields, Pakistani women became restricted. It is now, after decades that the presence of women from both liberal and conservative backgrounds has begun to rise in the formal sector.
This article studies the barriers that hinder female workplace participation and discusses a particular case of female workers (doctors and nurses) in hospitals regarding the gender based violence they suffer from. Literature on the subject outlines that lack of required skill sets and lack of qualification are not the reasons behind an unequal employment ratio between men and women. Contrary to that, it is the harassment they face at work that discourages women from employment altogether.
In ‘Taking Their Own Lives — The High Rate of Physician Suicide, ‘Eva Schernhammer highlights that female physicians are often in severe depression as a result of which many commit suicide. She cites certain examples of how the female staff is often mistreated while at work. Male patients and doctors often make unwanted physical contact and pass sexual comments towards them. They also needlessly call nurses for prolonged non serious conversations which eventually lead to asking them out for dates or also verbal abuse at times. Such occurrences have made female doctors and nurses less enthusiastic towards their work. Schernhammer stresses the need to create a working environment that supports and strengthens the position of females in a work place and provides them protection from such instances.
An article in the Time Magazine quoted that 30% of the successful female doctors have been sexually harassed. According to a research published in the journal JAMA, one third of women physicians reported being sexually harassed as compared to the 4% of male physicians. From among those women, 60% stated the harassment had a negative impact on their confidence and 50% said it had greatly hindered their career development. Moreover, interviews with female hospital workers in Pakistan revealed just how prevalent such issues are. The personal experiences of several victims also highlighted the extent of gender-based-violence in Pakistan. Widespread violence on all levels occurs on an everyday basis despite the fact that the country boasts a strict gender code and regulars regarding gendered interaction.
Several female employees of a private hospital in Karachi complained about cases of sexual harassment. Apart from the regular sexual innuendos, attempts at touching, passing random comments on appearances and receiving random calls, these workers also have to deal with even worse scenarios. Because of their overnight shifts in the hospital, male patients, doctors, and nurses have often been reported to have entered their rooms without bothering to knock or announce their presence. This has led to considerable embarrassment where their privacy by virtue of being in a private room was encroached upon. They have narrated cases in which the male workers came inside their rooms while they were asleep, some even without their headscarves.
A more subtle critique was from the workers at private dental clinic, who since the nature of their job demands very close physical contact with the patients, are often faced with frequent attempts at physical contact by the patients. Surprisingly enough for a country like Pakistan, these women have also been asked if they are ‘single’ or looking for a marriage partner, in such detail that they have even experienced male patients, workers, and doctors inquiring about their ethnicity, based on the taboo on inter-ethnic marriages in Pakistan.
The evidence through research and personal encounters screams of the weakened position of females in any organization may it be a hospital or a corporate firm. There is dire need of mental health counselling both for men and women who work, as their internal anxieties and stress triggers inappropriate behaviour towards the opposite gender. This will not only play its part in improving the way men objectify their colleagues, and make men more supportive of them, but also help victims of harassment recover from whatever loss of confidence and career-relevant hindrances they have faced due to it.
Apart from that, in order to ensure a harassment free environment, organizations should implement strict policies backed by serious consequences to counter such behaviour. Fear of penalties like being fired or fined is likely to reduce such incidences in any organization and would lead to a more respectable environment. Furthermore, initiatives such as positive advertising to remove unconscious gender bias can also be taken, but these require a lot of funds and are often beyond the hospital’s reach. However, the state’s policy should condemn and control behaviour that causes social distress, as it largely deters the state’s economic growth.
— The writer is freelance columnist based in Karachi.