Predators in Pakistan’s workplace

In a patriarchal society like Pakistan, the fear of victim-blaming inhibits many individuals from taking action against their harassers.


March 22, 2023

KARACHI – Dr Saima Nadeem* was in a meeting with three colleagues, all men, when she says that one of them — her boss — asked her an extremely offensive, sexually explicit question. While the other two men snickered, she flushed with embarrassment. According to her, this was far from an isolated incident, that she would be repeatedly called into his office and asked “indecent and intolerable questions of a sexual nature”.

Another doctor at the same organisation, Anisa Hasan*, in a sworn affidavit spoke of “sexual innuendo and harassment” at the hands of her boss. “I was also threatened with a transfer to Multan due to my reluctance [to have] social contact outside the office. …The transfer threat was made knowing I was a single mother and dependent on my family for child support.”

This is but the tip of the iceberg in what appears to be a shocking years-long saga of workplace sexual harassment that has left a trail of shattered lives in its wake.

The alleged perpetrator is a senior executive of DKT International, an INGO headquartered in the US, and, according to at least five of its female employees in Pakistan, the company’s American management showed utter indifference to their complaints.

The women claim that the former country director of DKT Pakistan, Dawar Warraich, carried out a sustained campaign of sexual harassment that began soon after he took up the position in late 2015. Three of the alleged victims have filed sworn affidavits detailing what they went through; two have sent him legal notices; and at least one has taken him to court.

They say the ordeal destroyed their mental peace and for some, led to permanent adverse effects on their personal and professional lives.

A workplace free of sexual harassment is a vital aspect of the long battle for gender parity. In a patriarchal society like Pakistan, the fear of victim-blaming and character assassination inhibits many individuals from taking action against their harassers.

Nevertheless, with increasing numbers of women joining the workforce, many are refusing to be subjected to sexist and degrading treatment at their place of employment. Each one of them who breaks the silence strikes a blow for equality.

Did an American NGO ignore multiple complaints of sexual harassment at its Pakistan office?

Protection of Women from Sexual Harassment at the Workplace Act 2010 requires every organisation to set up a three-member enquiry committee — including at least one woman — to investigate complaints of harassment and also provides for the establishment of ombudspersons at the federal and provincial levels to hear complaints. According to the latest annual report of the Federal Ombudsperson Secretariat for Prevention of Sexual Harassment, only 84 cases were registered from 2010 till 2013, while 398 cases were filed between 2013 and 2018. Between 2019 and 2022, however, 5,008 cases of sexual harassment were registered; a vast majority involve female victims.

“A few cases under the Act have made their way up to the high courts and even the Supreme Court,” says lawyer Sara Malkani. “However, implementation is still gradual and there are many organisations that don’t have enquiry committees, and even when they do, we see that they aren’t hearing cases with the sensitivity and professionalism that is required.”

In the West, particularly the US, the #MeToo movement — sparked by allegations of sexual harassment and/or rape against former Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein who has since been convicted and sentenced to 39 years behind bars — set off ripples around the globe.

MeToo empowered victims of sexual harassment through solidarity: millions posted the hashtag on social media to indicate that they too had experienced or were experiencing the same. The message behind it was: we will be silent no longer. Sexual harassers would no longer enjoy the impunity acquired by muzzling victims’ voices.

That makes the conduct of an American NGO like DKT International all the more questionable. As Dr Saima put it: “Was #MeToo only meant to empower American women? Do Pakistani women not deserve protection from sexual harassment? Why did DKT’s head office not lift a finger to help us?”

Founded in 1989, DKT International, according to its website is “one of the largest private providers of family planning products in the world … Five of the 10 largest contraceptive social marketing programmes in the world are DKT programmes”.

DKT has offices in 24 countries across Asia, Africa and South America, with a sales presence in 60 countries. Its Pakistan programme launched in 2012 and by now has 1,200 plus health care clinics all over the country offering a range of contraceptive services.

Among DKT International’s donors are governments, foundations and other organisations. These include, among others, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation; the UK government’s Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office; the United Nations Population Fund; and the Swedish International Development Agency.

How ironic then that at the Pakistan chapter of an organisation that counts women as its core clientele and where women play a critical role in providing services, multiple accusations of sexual harassment were not taken seriously by its American management. Incidentally, the complainants’ accusations were also backed by several of their male colleagues in emails to the DKT International head office.

When she made it clear that she would not give him what he wanted, the country director without any rationale had her transferred to Lahore. The legal notice sent on her behalf to DKT says that he was “aware that our client was vulnerable” as she, a self-supporting woman, had escaped Lahore “with her children to keep a distance from her emotionally abusive husband. As a consequence of the vindictive transfer” she lost custody of her children to her estranged spouse.

As per documents in Dawn’s possession, DKT International President and CEO Chris Purdy was first intimated about Mr Warraich’s behaviour by email on May 3, 2016. Hadiya Rafiq*, a young woman who former colleagues described as a “rising star at DKT”, alleged that in late 2015 she was “subjected to extremely inappropriate behaviour by Mr Warraich while on the way to an appointment. I was both shocked and frightened… .”

She said she reported the matter to the previous country head whom she saw as a mentor. Unfortunately, she said, the latter informed Mr Warraich, after which “I found myself completely sidelined. My ideas were mocked, my work dismissed out of hand and I was constantly berated in the presence of other colleagues. I spent hours playing computer games in the months before I left.” She says she never heard back from Mr Purdy.

This, say the complainants, appears to have been a pattern — silence from the company CEO and a campaign of sustained bullying and intimidation by Mr Warraich, with assistance from some DKT employees. Dr Anisa in her affidavit dated Oct 25, 2021 said that on the advice of sympathetic colleagues, she tried to stay out of his way by conducting health camps outside the office but he soon began to turn up there as well.

A hostile atmosphere was created at work. “On three occasions starting from February 2017, I was held against my wishes in a room where three men interrogated, shouted and bullied me for more than five hours. This was after office hours … and no female was present.” Mr Warraich was allegedly present on two of those occasions.

Another female doctor also claimed she was made to stay back at the office till 11.30 pm, hours after a regular workday, long after other female employees had gone. Further, it is alleged in the legal notice sent by her lawyers that Mr Warraich would “enforce upon her to be dropped back home by one of her male colleagues whereas she would normally be picked up by her brother. …[T]his reflected badly upon [her] reputation as she was being dropped home late at night by different men each day… .”

According to her, when she made it clear that she would not give him what he wanted, Mr Warraich without any rationale had her transferred to Lahore which left her no choice but to drop out of the MBA course she was pursuing in Karachi on the weekends and which she had nearly completed.

The legal notice sent on her behalf to DKT says that Mr Warraich was “aware that our client was vulnerable” as she, a self-supporting woman, had escaped Lahore “with her children to keep a distance from her emotionally abusive husband. As a consequence of the vindictive transfer” she lost custody of her children to her estranged spouse who belongs to an influential family. During that forced posting that lasted three years, she says she was given no work, received no increments or promotions, rendering her career stagnant.

According to the complainants, Mr Warraich’s campaign of persecution did not stop even after the women, having found no other recourse, left DKT to work elsewhere. Consider Dr Anisa’s case. In April 2017, after she joined Marie Stopes, another reproductive health INGO. During her probation period, she was informed by its management that they had received a written complaint from DKT saying she had been terminated from DKT due to corruption. She was asked to resign from her new job.

“I sent an email and several reminders to Mr Dawar asking him to clarify his position in writing to MSS but he never bothered to reply. His HR denied writing such a letter but refused to put this in writing… . It was ALSO made public by innuendo and verbal means that I was corrupt. I wrote to DKT International [on May 1, 2017] but received no reply. I took my case to HRCP … but then did not pursue that further as I was made aware that to do so meant vilification and career ruin in future too.

As a single mother I could not afford this.” Ultimately, because she could not get the required clearance from DKT, Marie Stopes did not retain her. The ordeal has taken an enormous toll on Dr Anisa’s mental health, say former colleagues. According to one of them, “She was an extremely confident woman, but when I met her recently I was shocked to see her reduced to a shadow of her former self”.

In response to Dawn’s questions, DKT International President and CEO Purdy stated: “DKT strongly denies the allegations levelled by various persons and has yet to see any concrete evidence to support them.” He said it is “incorrect to suggest that no inquiry or investigation took place…” and that DKT’s internal auditor “reached out and made himself available” to the complainants but “none of them came forward and no evidence was provided”.

As per the complainants, no internal auditor made any effort to contact them. (One of them told Dawn, “I’ve never even heard of such an individual.”) This appears to be corroborated by the executive who succeeded Mr Warraich as country director. His email response to Dawn appears later in this report.

Dawn also wrote back to Mr Purdy to ask for evidence that the internal auditor had “reached out and made himself available” to the complainants, but received no response.

The case of Dr Maheen Bashir* is somewhat different. She was not a DKT employee, but was working at Marie Stopes when she says Mr Warraich contacted her about a vacancy at a senior position at DKT and set up a meeting with her. As per the legal notice sent by Dr Maheen’s lawyers, during the interview on Dec 23, 2019, she became aware “Mr Warraich was, without any shame and absolutely without consent, recording a video of our client”.

Mr Warraich then asked her to accompany him to the conference room to meet with other team members. Here a most peculiar incident allegedly took place. When one of the female staff members said she had a stomach ache, “Mr Warraich blatantly asked whether she was going through her menstrual cycle, and then continued on by … rubbing her shoulders and back, and then [telling Dr Maheen that] the said female employee has a ‘problematic cycle’ and suffers a lot”.

She told Dawn: “I thought I’d had a really narrow escape. I felt there was something seriously wrong in that environment.” Disturbed by what she had experienced, Dr Maheen turned down the DKT job offer. Soon however, she found herself “being disregarded from tasks and activities at Marie Stopes and her management stopped sharing financial details/ plans with her, which was previously shared with [her] … and was imperative for her role… .”

When she inquired about the change in attitude, she was informed by her management that Mr Warraich had called some of her colleagues and said to the effect “that she had allegedly made promises to him about disclosing confidential information about Marie Stopes and that she would be leaving Marie Stopes to work for him soon”.

She said the unsubstantiated rumours made her work environment so difficult that she couldn’t work there any longer, and as a result suffered a “reputational loss” that compromised her career prospects. Despite contacting DKT Pakistan’s HR department multiple times and submitting a detailed account of the alleged harassment she had suffered, Dr Maheen said she got no response.

In an email conversation with Dawn, Mr Warraich stated: “I strongly deny [these allegations] as being false, fabricated, concocted, vague and baseless and pursued with ulterior motives to defame me and harm DKT. I have never sexually harassed anyone nor engaged in any sort of campaign of persecution and intimidation against the complainants. Such claims are incorrect and preposterous.”

Asked why a three-member inquiry committee was not set up to look into the complaints, as per the law, Mr Warraich claimed: “[O]ne complainant had emailed DKT’s head office in Washington, D.C., USA in May 2016 after leaving the organisation … The other complainants never lodged any claims of harassment against me while I was Country Director of DKT Pakistan having left the post in May 2021.”

However, Mr Purdy’s own email to Dawn appears to contradict this claim. He wrote: “[I]n 2016 and 2017, the DKT Washington DC offices received whistleblower emails alleging harassment and bullying in the DKT Pakistan offices”.

The complainant who emailed DKT’s head office in May 2016 was Ms Rafiq — mentioned earlier in this report. While it is true that she had left the company by then, Ms Rafiq had also approached a female senior manager, Saleha Asim*, with her complaint towards the end of 2015 while she was still employed there and Mr Warraich was the country manager.

Aside from Ms Rafiq, another female employee separately approached Ms Asim around the same time with complaints of sexual harassment against Mr Warraich.

Ms Asim asked the human resources manager to set up an enquiry committee to look into their allegations. (DKT Pakistan did not have such a committee, which was a legal requirement.) When Dawn reached out to her, Ms Asim confirmed this. She added: “After the second incident report, I informed Mr Chris Purdy as the matter pertained to the country director. Within days I found myself sidelined and my work virtually disappeared. My team was told not to report to me. I left the organisation about eight weeks later of my own accord… .”

Both Mr Purdy and Mr Warraich told Dawn that Ms Asim resigned on account of “performance issues”; they alleged that this precipitated a “smear campaign” against DKT.

Mr Purdy added: “She left very disgruntled”. However, when this paper reached out to Ms Asim, who resigned from DKT in early 2016, she said: “I have always been a convenient scapegoat but my performance appraisal done two months before Dawar became country head and the increased salary paid directly to me by DKT International should debunk any doubts about my performance.”

Ms Asim also shared the contents of an email she said was written by Mr Purdy in 2022 to her prospective employer which read as follows: “I am pleased to reach out to you to assure you that [Ms Asim’s] departure from DKT Pakistan had nothing to do with any issues related to her personal or professional integrity… .”

Ms Malkani, the lawyer Dawn spoke with said: “There are often witnesses who can testify they were informed by the complainant of this incident soon after it took place and their statement has some evidentiary value. There could also be witnesses who could say that the accused person [also] harassed them previously or harassed other people in the workplace, so they can also come forward as character witnesses.”

According to some of the complainants, DKT’s acts of omission and commission rendered them even more vulnerable. They alleged that not only did Mr Purdy turn a deaf ear to their complaints but that Mr Warraich, the alleged perpetrator, was informed about the content of their emails without being made to answer for his actions.

Dr Saima says: “Soon after we’d written, I and [another alleged victim] happened to pass Dawar on the stairs. He stopped us, and said we’d be sorry we’d sent those emails. How else would he have known if Mr Purdy had not forwarded our emails to him?” (While Dr Saima had cc’d a male colleague on the email, her colleague had written to Mr Purdy alone.) According to the Code of Conduct in the legislation on sexual harassment, “The alleged accused will be approached with the intention of resolving the matter in a confidential manner.”

Mr Purdy did not address the question Dawn asked as to whether he had forwarded the complainants’ confidential emails to Mr Dawar.

DKT Pakistan’s code of conduct, available on its website, spells out a strict policy against harassment. It reads: “DKT Pakistan follows a zero-tolerance policy regarding discrimination, bullying, harassment, sexual exploitation & abuse. All employees have an obligation to report any form of discrimination, harassment or exploitation against her/him, another employee… .”

According to the code of conduct, in the event that a complaint of this nature is confirmed, the perpetrator could find himself fired. The company further claims that its “zero tolerance policy follows the minimum standards as those outlined in the Government of Pakistan’s “The Protection against Harassment of Women at the Workplace Act 2010”.

To gauge how well the DKT’s “zero tolerance policy” works in practice, consider how the afore-mentioned Act defines harassment. According to the law, harassment is “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favours or other verbal or written communication or physical conduct of a sexual nature or sexually demeaning attitudes, causing interference with work performance or creating an intimidating, hostile or offensive work environment, or the attempt to punish the complainant for refusal to comply to such a request or is made a condition for employment”.

According to one of the women Dawn spoke with, the campaign of vindictiveness that Mr Warraich allegedly waged left the victims “so frightened” that they “only raised their heads above the parapet” after he was given another international posting as country manager.

On June 11, 2021, Dr Saima emailed the incoming Pakistan country manager, Justin Main Thompson and attached two earlier emails written by male colleagues at DKT that corroborated the allegations of sexual harassment.

Mr Thompson wrote back to say: “Thank you for bringing these to my attention. DKT International takes all such allegations extremely seriously, and I have forwarded these to our head office in Washington D.C. ….” The emails were forwarded to Mr Purdy and HR director Michele Thorburn, but again, says Dr Saima, there was a deafening silence.

When Dawn emailed Mr Thompson — who no longer works for DKT — he said he was “assured by Chris [Purdy] that these issues had been investigated and the matter was closed. …[Mr Warraich] had been investigated by David Negus (at that stage ‘an auditor for DKT’) in Pakistan. I spoke to Negus who admitted [that no alleged victims] had been interviewed by him throughout the investigations.”

As per Section 4 of the sexual harassment law, the inquiry committee shall within three days of receipt of a written complaint “enquire into the charge and may examine such oral or documentary evidence in support of the charge or in defence of the accused as the Committee may consider necessary”.

During this period, the committee shall communicate the charges to the accused in writing, who will then be required to submit a written defence within seven days. Moreover, the committee “shall submit its findings and recommendations to the competent authority within 30 days of the initiation of inquiry”.

However, DKT International continued to ignore the women’s sworn affidavits as well as the two legal notices sent on June 25, 2022 — years after the initial complaints were made. It was only after a human rights activist contacted the UK government’s Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office to inform them of the alleged sexual harassment, and the FCDO asked DKT Pakistan to carry out an independent review was there any response.

On Nov 2, 2022, the two complainants who had sent legal notices to Mr Warraich received a letter from Supreme Court advocate Rukhsana Ahmad. She wrote she had been commissioned by DKT International and DKT Pakistan to “conduct an external independent third-party investigation on their behalf to verify the veracity of the allegations of harassment… .”. The letter asked them join the investigation and inquiry and record their evidence before Ms Ahmad within 15 days.

However, Dr Saima has instead pinned her hopes for justice on the civil suit she filed in October 2022 at the Sindh High Court. According to her lawyer, Syed Ali Hyder, “My client apprehended a one-sided biased enquiry. This belief was further reinforced by the fact that … such action was only initiated after our client filed the civil suit seeking inter alia damages”.

In his email to Dawn, Mr Purdy said that Ms Ahmad’s independent review concluded in January 2023 “with a detailed report running into hundreds of pages. After carefully scrutinising the voluminous record, the investigator did not find merit in the complaints”.

While referring to the lawsuit, Mr Warraich has claimed that Dr Saima “has avoided to proceed with the said case to date, which is a matter of court and public record”.

On the contrary, Dr Saima’s lawyer shared the copy of an application he filed on Feb 2, 2023 for urgent hearing of the case. “The case has only come up for hearing four times [and] we have been there on each and every date.”

*Victims’ names and some identifying details have been changed.

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