That only 4% of 90% women who answered yes to a survey question whether they had been sexually harassed on public transport, had the courage to seek help from the police, is a serious indictment on Sri Lankan society and the police service itself.
Whether the 4% who sought help were successful in getting justice, the survey does not say. However, given the general lackadaisical attitude of both officials and the public to the issue of sexual harassment, one could safely guess that in most cases the outcome would have been less than satisfactory. In fact, in a video recording of a young woman who confronted her aggressor on a bus, it was clear that neither the conductor nor passengers, some of them women, helped the victim. Nor did the bus driver heed the victim’s call that the bus be driven to the nearest police station. What’s more, when the victim took her complaint to the Peradeniya police, she was asked to go to the Warakapola police.
Given that the offence took place on a moving bus, and jurisdictions could change in the blink of an eye, when a vehicle is in motion, is it essential that complaints be made to the exact area police?
The six-month long survey commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in 2015, involved nearly 2,500 women between the age group of 15 -35 from across the country. On Friday, March 1st, the UNFPA, along with the Colombo Municipal Council, the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs and the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation launched the public installation “Does She Travel Safe” initiative in Colombo to raise awareness and urge the public to “intervene, speak up and be the change.’
Sexual harassment, according to victim stories showcased at the event, has forced women not just to change seats on the bus or train but even change residences in the hope that there would be relief on another route. One young woman revealed that she would wait more than an hour to board a bus, for fear that on a crowded one she would be subjected to harassment. But others found, that less crowded buses offered no protection either.
That sexual harassment of women in public spaces, not just on buses and trains continues unabated, is an indication that we, as a society have not yet moved to that point where all sexes are treated with respect, dignity and equality. Women have been subjected to lewd comments and sexual abuse for decades with no real interventions to change this behaviour.
More often than not, even family members’ advise victims not to react or seek help for fear of censure by society or the acceptance that such behaviour amongst the male of the species is normal. Most others are wary of the reception of the police to a complaint of sexual assault. As survey respondents noted, even appealing to the conductor or driver of the bus proved futile; one conductor had even burst out laughing!
It is certainly no laughing matter, as anyone subjected to such disgusting and lewd behaviour would testify. Rather, it results in the victim experiencing negative emotions. Women end up feeling less worthy, cornered and imprisoned within the walls of a society that does not take punitive action against men who find pleasure in acting out their sexual deviancies on unsuspecting victims. One woman’s reaction on reading the victim stories displayed at the Colombo Municipal Council grounds was, “nothing’s changed.”, It wasn’t anger, horror or dismay, but just resignation that women have never been safe in public. She is in her sixties and had used public transport for work.
Society takes no action, and the women must resign themselves to this daily abuse of their private space, whether on a bus or train or simply our for a walk, even though Article 12 (2) of the Constitution guarantees safety, ““discriminating against a person based on his or her sex is a violation of a person’s fundamental right to equality”. Sexual harassment is also a punishable offence that could throw the culprit behind bars for up to five years, and could also include a fine and compensation to the victim; section 345 of the Penal Code, (Amendment) Act No. 22 of 1995 states ““Harassment of a sexual nature using assault, criminal force, or words or actions which causes annoyance to the person being harassed.”
According to data, only 34% of women who fall into the economically active age group are currently employed. And there is now an effort to encourage more women to join the workforce. But what are the safeguards afforded to women, who must venture out of their homes if they are to actively contribute to the economy?
Transport and Aviation Minister Arjuna Ranatunga, recently, declared that there would be ‘women only” compartments on trains. While his desire to safeguard women is to be commended, segregating women is certainly not the answer. There used to be such compartments on trains in days gone by, but it has not resulted in a safer environment for women. Nor has there been a drop in the incidents, despite there being Women and Children’s desks at police stations for more than thirty years.
When a friend of this columnist complained to the Women and Children’s desk about a man exposing himself close to a girls school (not to far from a well-known temple), the first reaction of the police was to tell the complainant to inform them if the culprit was sighted again! They later phoned to tell her that the number plate provided of the vehicle the man was driving, had been traced to an older man and there the complaint ended, with no attempt to identify and punish the person who would have been driving the vehicle the time the offence was committed.
The UNFPA study provides a series of recommendations from “a national dialogue with key stakeholders to formulate gender sensitive policy for public transportation with effective monitoring, evaluation and implementation, strengthening the response and grievance mechanisms, a dedicated helpline with guidelines that law enforcement personnel must adhere to, good coordination between law enforcement and transport security officers to ensure swift and effective action, complaints mechanisms at rail and bus stations, and frequent audits to ensure women and girls have access to safe transport all the time”.
Even as women are given the tools to protect themselves and law enforcement and transport officers and bystanders are groomed to ensure women get about their daily work, without fear of sexual molestation and with dignity, the more important responsibility of every single citizen is to ensure that women are not treated as sexual objects. As countless women would testify, not a day goes by when one or the other has been physically or verbally mauled by men in public spaces for their sexual pleasure.
Along with policy changes, it is necessary to aggressively educate men that women must have freedom of movement without fear of sexual assault. At home, in schools, in religious institutions boys must learn from a very early stage that women must be treated with respect and dignity and not as sexual playthings.
As history shows, women only compartments and women and children’s desks at police stations have had little or no impact in ensuring a safe environment for women.
It is time for an attitudinal change!