Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

Afghan Women Demand Action on Workplace Harassment

Managers often take advantage of their position of authority.
By Mina Habib

Nahid has been trying to find a job in the Afghan media, so far without success. Every time she goes for an interview, employers make it clear she will only get the job in exchange for sexual favours.

“When they invite me into their office, instead of asking about my work and abilities, they tell me, ‘It isn’t important how much experience you have. What’s important is how we can get together and keep each other happy,’” she told IWPR.

Although there have been advances in gender equality since the fall of the Taleban in 2001 and many women have entered the job market, they are often victims of workplace harassment.

According to the labour ministry, there 200,000 women working for government institutions nationwide and another 50,000 employed by NGOs.

Ministry spokesman Ali Iftikhari told IWPR that despite legal protections, the legislation was rarely enforced.

“In the sphere of work, men still regard women as second-class citizens, although according to the law, women are equal to men in all respects,” he said.

It is illegal for employers to abuse staff, but Iftikhari says this is all too common.

“Research conducted by our audit team over the past ten years in both government institutions and NGOs show that most women are not safe in the work environment,” he said. “In the past six years, the labour and social affairs ministry has recorded 500 cases. Most involved sexual abuse. Women rebuffed demands of this kind, they were fired, had their wages cut or endured some other form of punishment.”

An employee of a government media organisation who asked to remain anonymous told IWPR her story of being sexually harassed by a senior manager and – a less common experience – getting action taken to stop him.

“The deputy head regularly tried to get me to come into his office, but I knew he had evil intentions. Finally, he threatened me directly – he told me that if I didn’t submit to his demands, I would be fired,” she said. “I shared this with the wife of a high-ranking government official, whom I knew personally. When they put pressure on the deputy head, he came to me and apologised. He said he never had evil intentions, he had just wanted to check whether I was a ‘good girl’ or not.”

Legal prohibitions of sexual harassment include Article 427 of the criminal code, which provides for a sentence of up to three years’ imprisonment for anyone found guilty of misusing their “authority or influence” over another individual.

A pending law on the elimination of violence against women contains several clauses concerning sexual harassment. Article 30 sets out a three-month minimum sentence for anyone convicted of sexual harassment, rising to six months if it involves abuse of authority. However, this legislation is not in force. Signed into law by then president Hamed Karzai in 2009, the law was blocked by conservatives in parliament in May 2013.

Lawyer Mohammad Rahim Karimzada agrees that women face widespread abuse at work. He has dealt with a number of cases where women suffered harassment in both public- and private-sector organisations.

“Most employers and authorities have no awareness of the law, especially criminal legislation and the law on eliminating violence against women,” he said. “A general lack of awareness among both female and male workers about their employment rights has also fuelled this situation.”

Fear of dismissal leads many women to suffer in silence. Karimzada said perpetrators took advantage of the leverage this gave them.

Social pressures also play a role in limiting women’s access to justice.

Parwin Rahimi heads the women’s support department at the Afghanistan Independent Human Rights Council (AIHRC). She says although women often report cases of sexual harassment to her office, they are reluctant to lodge formal complaints.

“Women do not want to make an official complaint as they’re afraid they will lose their job, or that families, colleagues and wider society will find out what they are facing,” she said. “For that reason, they remain silent. This further emboldens the men who are exploiting their positions.”

Sidiqa Balkhi, head of the women’s affairs commission in the upper house of Afghanistan’s parliament, the Meshrano Jirga, told IWPR that harassment was a major problem.

“Cases and complaints of this kind are brought to our commission. We have addressed them as best we can; we have not remained silent,” she said. “Even though there are very many complaints of this kind, women avoid reporting them for various reasons.”

Balkhi says the government has delayed submitting laws already approved by the president for parliamentary approval.

“Some of these laws are stalled, and are still with the justice ministry,” she said. “That demonstrates the government’s indifference towards women rights.”

Deputy Justice Minister Sayed Mohammad Hashimi says the accusation is baseless. He told IWPR that a new regulation prohibiting the harassment of women was endorsed by the cabinet on October 3 and has already been published in the official gazette.

“We have not delayed any law concerning women, nor would we not dream of doing that,” he added.

Qudsiya Niazi, who heads a prosecution service office dedicated to combatting violence against women, says the male domination of senior roles entrenches retrograde attitudes.

“Even though it has been made possible for women to join the job market, they aren’t safe in the workplace. Most management roles are filled by men,” she said.

Niazi said that if more women acquired leadership roles in public life, it would embolden others to speak out against abuse and demand justice.

She said that her office was currently dealing with dozens of cases, and that this did not reflect the true scale of the problem.

“Although women suffer harassment, they don’t pursue claims because they are frightened of losing their jobs,” she said. “This ties our hands and it means we can’t take any action against the institution or authority concerned.”

Harassment comes in different forms. Wahida, who works for an NGO, said she was punished by her boss when she fell out with him over a potential promotion. The director then hired his brother for the job.

“As an experienced staff member with a long work record in the organisation, I told the director that what he’d done was against the law,” she said. “I had applied for that position and a pay rise. He argued with me and the very next day, he had me transferred to a role in a different office with a lower salary. I complained to the authorities, but no one supported me.

“That’s justice for women.”

This report was produced under IWPR’s Promoting Human Rights and Good Governance in Afghanistan initiativefunded by the European Union Delegation to Afghanistan.