Venturing out into the streets of Sri Lanka’s metropolises has become an ordeal that many women dread. While navigating the increasingly crowded public spaces is stressful enough, it only becomes all the more tiresome when one has to simultaneously field a volley of catcalls, hoots, whistles and lecherous advances. Worse yet, such harassment is not a one-off occurrence in Sri Lanka. It is an inevitable eventuality every single time a woman steps out into the streets, so much so that it has become customary for women all over the country to simply shrug off the daily onslaught of verbal and physical harassment they face to and from school or work.
Street harassment is the umbrella term used to define any unwelcome or sexually explicit remark, gesture, or action directed towards a person in a public place, based on their gender or sexual orientation. It is considered a form of gender violence and recognised as a violation of fundamental human rights. Studies worldwide indicate that women are the most common victims of both verbal and physical street harassment, with the offenders being predominantly male.
According to a 2015 nationwide survey released earlier this year by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka, 90% of females between the ages of 15 and 35 all over the island have experienced sexual harassment on public transport. Of these, 74% reported that the harassment was of the physical variety, and 97% of the cases were documented to have been perpetrated by males. In the same year, a Sri Lankan activist organisation called Street Harassment Hurts carried out an independent online survey on street harassment with 568 participants. According to the results of this survey, 97% of the female respondents had faced street harassment of some type or the other, and 86% said that they experienced mental or physical trauma as a result of the harassment. These findings corroborate those of similar studies on street harassment from the past decade, indicating that there has been no improvement in the situation.
In Sri Lanka, harassment on the way to and from work is one of the major deterrents to women joining the workforce. While females from all professional spheres face street harassment, those who work in the public sector are vulnerable to it even within their professional environment. Farah*, 27, a medical officer who formerly worked at the Marawila Base Hospital, reveals that during her posting, she witnessed groups of men loitering aimlessly inside the hospital, verbally harassing young female doctors and health workers who walked by. “It’s as though they refuse to respect you or your profession, simply because you are a woman,” she says.
Some victims use humour to deflect the emotional trauma of being harassed, like Fareena, 50, a domestic worker, who makes light of the fact that male passengers on public transport often deliberately grind against her. Vanni*, 24, recounts that a fellow passenger not only exposed himself to her, but also touched her inappropriately with his nether regions. By the time she recovered enough from her shock to protest, the man had already fled. Gayathri*, 25, another victim of sexual harassment on public transport, recalls an incident where a male passenger sitting next to her on a crowded bus showed her images of a sexual nature on his phone.
In addition to overtly sexual physical harassment on public transport, perpetrators also employ other more subtle methods of harassment, like leaning on or pretending to doze off against the nearest female passenger. Firsthand accounts indicate that harassers, while being chiefly male, can be at any stage between childhood and old age. It is, in fact, not an unheard of phenomenon in Sri Lanka to be catcalled at by little boys in blue shorts and Spiderman backpacks waiting for the bus after school.
Cause And Effect
Sexual harassment in public places is not just a social menace, it can also cause lasting psychological trauma and anxiety in victims. A vast majority of individuals choose to ignore their harassers in order to avoid aggravating the situation. Retaliating verbally is pointless, victims point out, as the offenders either refuse to accept responsibility and become aggressive, or they deliberately take the harassment up a notch. Many women avoid seeking help from law enforcement officials, both out of fear of repercussions, and because of a lack of faith in the implementation of justice. According to a 2015 questionnaire administered by the General Sir John Kotelawala Defense University, Ratmalana, 45% of the female respondents who experienced street harassment said that the police were inattentive to their complaints, and 10% alleged that they were further humiliated by the police when they reported harassment. Therefore, it comes as no surprise that only about 4% of the victims of public harassment in Sri Lanka turn to the police for help.
Attorney-at-law and Executive Director of Women in Need, Sri Lanka, Savithri Wijesekera says, “Most women don’t go to the police and make a complaint because they can’t get the other party to come [and take responsibility], or they don’t know who the offender is. It is also difficult to prove street harassment, since it’s your word against another person’s. At the end of the day, women don’t want to get embarrassed, so they don’t take it up [with the law]. There is still a lot of shame and stigma attached to it, because society is not really supportive or sensitive to the issue.”
The passive refusal of most bystanders to get involved adds another layer of complexity to the situation. In many South Asian societies, there is a disturbing tendency to display an indulgent attitude towards street harassment, because of the misguided belief that “boys will be boys.” This approach invariably leads to victim-shaming to absolve the male perpetrators of any blame. As a result, female victims are stigmatised and disparaged for their choice of attire, lifestyle, or mode of transport. Validation of street harassment based on the attire of the victim is not only a worrying justification of rape culture, but it also frees the aggressor from accountability. In addition, it is baseless, as firsthand accounts show that street harassment in Sri Lanka happens regardless of whether the victim is dressed in western clothing, traditional wear, religious attire, or school uniform.
Societal attitudes towards the male culprit (forgiving) and the female victim (condemning) indicate that sexual harassment is part of a larger problem that is intrinsic to the very fabric of our society: our patriarchal culture. In this context, street harassment becomes a masculine display of power and dominance intended to subjugate the female victim, thereby brutally reinforcing archaic gender stereotypes. Some men believe that verbally harassing women in public is a defensible part and parcel of their male privilege. For instance, Dinesh*, 25, tells us, “I think it’s a guy’s right.” Ranga*, 28, adds, “To some extent, girls also enjoy it.”
A 2015 research paper titled “Protection of the Rights of Sri Lankan Women from Street Harassment” released by the Faculty of Law at Sir John Kotelawala Defense University, Ratmalana, declares that street harassment “limits the freedom of movement of women and also causes gender inequality” and thus amounts to the “physical, emotional, sexual violations of their rights.” The paper explores the current legal framework that addresses street harassment, citing Section 345 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act No. 22 of 1995 of Sri Lanka, which states that “whoever, by assault or use of criminal force, sexually harasses another person, or by the use of words or actions, causes sexual annoyance or harassment to such other persons, commits the offence of sexual harassment” and is liable to be punished by imprisonment “for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both and may also be ordered to pay compensation” to the injured party. Sexual harassment is explained in the Act as “unwelcome sexual advances by words or action used by a person in authority, in a working place or any other place.”
Speaking to Roar, the author of the research paper, K. H. Medani Navoda, explains that this law is inadequate in addressing street harassment, pointing out that it fails to clarify what exactly constitutes “words and actions.” Navoda, who is an LLB graduate and a human rights activist, further elaborates, “This is a penal law. To punish a person under a penal law, the offence must be proved beyond a reasonable doubt. But when a person harasses by use of words, how can you prove it beyond reasonable doubt? How can you gather evidence? Therefore, according to my perspective, this section has not explicitly and specifically addressed the issue of street harassment.” She goes on to note that the ambiguity in the wording suggests that the type of sexual harassment punishable by the law is only that which is carried out by a person in authority, as opposed to any stranger on the road.
Other laws against street harassment include the Vagrants Ordinance Sri Lanka and the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). The former, which is somewhat obsolete, addresses non-gender-based street harassment, stating that the perpetrator is punishable either by imprisonment “for any term not exceeding fourteen days” or by “a fine not exceeding ten rupees.” The CEDAW is an international treaty established by the United Nations with the aim of protecting the economic and social rights of women. As a result of Sri Lanka’s ratification of this treaty, the Women’s Charter was passed in 1993, in order to remove all forms of gender-based discrimination faced by women. Navoda observes that though the country has taken steps to honour the treaty in certain areas like economic benefits, healthcare, and nutrition, it has not made any significant effort to protect women from social discrimination. “We have socially and legally failed to address the issue,” she says, adding that “our laws are stringent for offences such as rape and assault, but our biggest failure is that the authorities neglect the lesser offences that eventually lead to these more serious ones.”
How can the legal framework concerning street harassment be remedied? Navoda says, “Street harassment cannot be identified as a penal offence, in my point of view. Therefore, my perspective is to come up with a civil law remedy. For civil wrongs [as opposed to penal offences], there is no necessity to prove the offence beyond a reasonable doubt. Therefore, it will be easy for the victim to prove the offence and compensation can be provided to the victim based on the extent of damage caused by the harasser. The objective may not be to punish the offender, but to act as a deterrent. This way, the law will be realistic and proportionate to the offence [as opposed to identifying street harassment as a criminal offence, which is punishable by imprisonment].” She adds that this, of course, cannot apply to grave offences like rape or assault.
However, she believes that a large part of the onus also rests with individuals. “[Street harassment] is not a legal issue alone,” she says, “When social issues interact with legal issues [such as in the case of street harassment], the responsibility does not lie only with the lawmakers, but also with each and every individual in the society. Be it legally or socially, I strongly believe that the government has to take the initiative [to combat street harassment]. [The process of change] should be a collaborative effort between the government and the citizens of the country. However, the government has not taken any stance, legally or otherwise, on the issue.”
Not a lot can be done to address street harassment socially unless there is a drastic change in the individual attitudes of men towards women from a grassroots level. Savithri Wijesekera believes that awareness is important in bringing about a change. “The media plays a huge role,” she says, “I think there should be awareness programmes and media campaigns that [make it clear] to society that street harassment is wrong, and should not be tolerated, or taken lightly and considered funny. It is also important that the offenders are called to account. If males, too, take it seriously when they see harassment happening, it would make a big difference in terms of attitudes. [As per] the right to equality, we should all be able to walk on the streets without being harassed or commented upon.”
If you face or witness sexual harassment in a public place, do not hesitate to dial the police emergency number 119, or call the hotline of the Children and Women’s Division of the Sri Lanka Police at 011 2666666 to report the incident. If the harassment occurs on public transport, make sure that you inform the police of the bus number and route. Know your rights, educate yourself, and stay safe.
*Names have been changed to protect privacy
Featured image credit: Roar/Nishan Casseem