The acceptance of sexual abuse as ‘normal’ on public transport is contributing to the increasing number of incidents of young females being subjected to harassment daily in Sri Lanka, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) said. The report, ‘Sexual Harassment on Public Buses and Trains in Sri Lanka’ published in March 2017 states that incidents [...]


Harassment in public transport on the rise, victims suffer in silence: UN


The acceptance of sexual abuse as ‘normal’ on public transport is contributing to the increasing number of incidents of young females being subjected to harassment daily in Sri Lanka, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFP) said.

The report, ‘Sexual Harassment on Public Buses and Trains in Sri Lanka’ published in March 2017 states that incidents are on the rise because victims refuse to speak up and opt to suffer in silence.

Additionally, the study highlighted the deeper issue of gender imbalances within the societal structure that violated fundamental rights and the freedom of women and girls in society. This, it said, also created an environment of insecurity and limited women from reaching their full potential when participating in public life, employment and education.

To combat the above, it is working with many stakeholders including the Ministry of Transport and policy makers to carry the message and also to facilitate means by which the victims could reach out for help in such circumstances. It is also working with other independent agencies to get the message across that women have to speak up and resort to help in such instances.

In one such attempt, the UNFPA has tied up with a photojournalism series ‘cheer up luv’ launched by photographer Eliza Hatch against sexual harassment on public transport. The campaign titled ‘don’t look away’ will run for 16 days and will advocate activism against gender-based violence.

The programme that started on November 25 (International Day for the elimination of violence against women) will continue until December 10 (Human Rights Day) will carry out its programme on social media platforms. The aim is to empower women who don’t have a voice and to create a community where women can find solidarity in raising awareness on sexual harassment.

According to the UNFPA study, 90% of women have faced sexual harassment on public transport.

Paba Deshapriya, director of Grassrooted Trust, an organisation working with victims of cyber exploitation, while lauding UNFPA efforts said that targeting adults to change their ways is a tall order.

She conceded that boys in Sri Lanka grow up with the perception that to be a male is to be ‘macho’ and to reinforce this fact they feel that they have to put down the opposite gender. “It is a misconception of masculinity and stereotyping,” she said.

She attributes this to our education system and the media which discriminates against the female by placing the boys on a higher scale. They are given priority, freedom and the licence to do what they want with impunity, she said. A woman cannot walk on the road alone without being subjected to cat calls, she said.

Poster campaigns in public transport, offices and public places will sometimes have an effect, but it is more important to instil the message of respecting females at a younger age. Unless boys are taught to respect their peers, siblings, girl friends and others at a young age their attitudes won’t change.

This, she said, should start early in life, when the child is in his cognitive developmental stage, even as early as 3 to 7 years.

Ms Deshapriya said that it is easy to ask a woman to be courageous and call out for help. But she concedes that in a difficult situation shame prevents them from speaking up. Also a woman knows she will not get support from onlookers.

She recalled her own experience when she underwent the humiliation many times while travelling by bus as a school girl, teacher and a pregnant woman.

She added that onlookers need to be more empathetic towards the victim. They should show their solidarity by their support for the victim. They should speak up for the victim, she said.

If someone is harassed in a bus the victim should at least ring the bell, scream or condemn the act. If one does not take a stand these kinds of incidents will keep on occurring, she said.

According to the report 2.1% of women suffered sexual harassment on a daily basis while travelling in public transport.

Kamini Jinadasa, Executive Director of Shanthi Maargam an organisation that works for the upliftment of the emotional well being of youth said that women have to be empowered to speak up in such instances.

She said Sri Lankan women are brought up to believe that they are responsible for every mishap that befalls them. “They feel responsible for the incident and blame themselves. They attribute it to the way they dress, talk or conduct themselves. This makes them act passively during these incidents,”she said.

Ms. Jinadasa teaches the youths whom the organisation works with that they must learn that they are not at fault for all the ‘bad’ things that happen.

A woman, she said, should know that something inappropriate is happening to her and let the perpetrator know that she is aware of it. Seek help from others around or call the police. Also bus conductors should be trained to take the initiative to help a victim when someone complains.

The UNFPA survey also reveals that only 4% of women reached out to the law enforcement authorities for help.

ASP Lanka Rajani Amarasena of the Police Children and Women Bureau said that incidents of harassment in public transport are hardly reported.

She believes that women do not bother to report such matters to the police because of the hassle involved. The incidents occur either when they are on their way to work, on their way to drop their children at school or travelling on an urgent matter. Getting to a police station and reporting the incident would be an additional hassle. Further they are reluctant to reach out for help because of the stigma attached to the incident where in many cases the woman is blamed, she said

ASP Amarasena said if a complaint is made a case is filed and the victim is asked to appear for the case. The case may have several hearings. Most victims prefer not to go to courts and waste time.

Steps taken following the UN report

Following the report, UNFPA Sri Lanka office has reached out to key stakeholders including the Sri Lanka Police, the National Transport Commission of the Sri Lanka Transport Board, Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, Ministry of Education, Private bus driver’s Association, the media and local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) to address the issue.

Streamlining gender in the male dominated transport sector, developing a standardised sexual and gender based violence (SGBV) training module for conductors and drivers of buses and trains at time of recruitment, strengthening and streamlining hotlines available to respond effectively to complaints made by victims, and distributing stickers, poster, leaflets and videos for transport authorities to use as prevention mechanisms have been looked at.

The UNFPA concedes that there has been a positive response from the Women and Children’s Unit of the Sri Lanka Police and the mainstream and social media providing a continuous discourse on the subject since the launching of the campaign.

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