#MeToo in Lahore schools: Punjab mulls new sexual misconduct law for private institutions

'We're adding legislation on harassment to our laws,' said Dr Raas on Lahore school harassment cases

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"Private girls' schools should not have male teachers," Punjab Education Minister Dr Murad Raas said, adding that incidents of sexual harassment had also been reported in boys' schools. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji/Files

LAHORE: Punjab Education Minister Dr Murad Raas said Thursday the provincial government would bring a new act for private institutions after incidents of sexual harassment at the provincial capital's schools came to the fore.

Speaking to the media, Dr Raas acknowledged that the students who reported sexual harassment had gone through considerable mental anguish. They wept while narrating what had happened to them, he said, adding that he had spoken to about 20 to 25 of them.

Punjab Education Minister Dr Murad Raas addresses a press conference in Lahore, Pakistan, July 2, 2020. Twitter/Murad Raas (@DrMuradPTI)/via Geo.tv

"A written complaint of the incidents is required, without which action cannot be taken," he said. "We are going to bring a new act for private schools [and] we are adding legislation on harassment to our laws."

The Punjab minister said the government could only help people when written requests were submitted.

"Private girls' schools should not have male teachers," Dr Raas said, adding that incidents of sexual harassment had also been reported in boys' schools.

The minister mentioned that the government of Punjab was forming a committee to look into such issues. "If anyone is found to be responsible, they will be fined and jailed," he stressed.

In what many hope is a watershed moment for the school, numerous students came forward with accusations of sexual harassment, with incidents dating back to 2016. They claimed they had decided to report the incidents to the management after the incidents and the trauma became unbearable.

Watershed moment

Students said they had lodged various sexual harassment complaints over the years against the accused individuals but the administration did not take any action. Hence, some of them were forced to leave the school and seek admission in others.

Administration officer Aitzaz, accountant Omar, a security guard named Shehzad, and chemistry teacher Zahid Warraich were accused of sexual harassment by young women, some of whom were still studying there and others who had left school a few years ago.

Read more: Three, including principal, administrator, suspended over Lahore school harassment cases

The students also revealed that the chemistry teacher, Warraich, used to harass them by staring and trying to touch them inappropriately. They also said he tried to sit with them in a manner that made it very uncomfortable for the students to study.

The young women also spoke of a female teacher in the school who told them about how she was also a victim of harassment by one of the staff members at the institute but instead of taking action against the harassers, she told the students to remain silent.

Scope of investigation widened

In yet another update to the ongoing case, a committee of the District Education Authority (DEA) probing the matter has decided to expand the scope of the investigation, resolving to interview all students enrolled in Ordinary and Advanced Levels — O' and A' Levels — in the private school's girls branch.

A three-member DEA team penned a letter to the school administration, requesting all students be called to the campus tomorrow (Friday). The team also demanded that teachers and other staff who were suspended or fired be called as well.

The committee has also asked for the telephone numbers of students who had come forward with claims of sexual harassment, as well as of the teachers and other staff who were suspended or let go.

Anti-harassment policy

The Pakistan Education Council (PEC), an organisation of private schools, has been mobilised after reports of sexual harassment of female students came to the light in a private English-medium school in Lahore.

The PEC said it has set up an e-mail group for the safety of students in educational institutions. Students would be able to report abuse and harassment to the administration, it underlined, adding that they would also be made aware of the harassment policy.

The body said it would entertain the complaints filed by students via email.

'Laud the young women's courage'

Speaking of the harassment cases that sprung up in Lahore after several young women spoke up about the intimidation they faced at the hands of teachers, mentors, and school staff at a private school in the city's Gulberg neighbourhood, Child Protection & Welfare Bureau (CP&WB) Chairperson Sarah Ahmad said it should be ensured that the women get justice and the perpetrators brought to justice.

"I laud the young women's courage," Ahmad said, adding that the matter was being investigated and a case would be registered with the police soon.

"Educational institutions have a responsibility to provide education to children in a safe manner and environment," she added. "We will take this case forward."

In a post on Twitter, she said the CP&WB Punjab "will be looking into it & ensuring justice to the students as per Law".

"Nobody responding among management & teachers of LGS 1A1 when our bureau officers went there. Not picking calls too," she added on Twitter.

"Are schools supposed to teach children to speak up against violence or suppress their voice?"

Charter of demands

Separately, the school has prepared its charter of demand in a meeting attended by Director Nighat Ali, Principal Gulrukh Rehman, and other members of the management.

The school's sexual harassment policy should be posted on its website and bulletin boards, according to the newly-created charter of demand. It also added that school staff and students should be trained to prevent themselves from sexual harassment.

A harassment committee comprising senior teachers should be formed for an independent investigation.

Earlier today, Ali, the private institute's director, said the five employees who were accused of harassing women students were fired from their jobs, whereas the principal, administrator and coordinator had been suspended.

She added that an inquiry committee has been constituted to probe further into the matter. "The school has full authority to take legal action against the culprits and if the charges against them are proven, action will be taken against them," Ali said.