Our Perspective

The Travails of Being Safe in Public Spaces


Sri Lankan society is home to one of the most uncivilized and antiquated “practices” - the sexual harassment of women in public. Under the Penal Code Section 345, sexual harassment is defined as any act that causes sexual annoyance or harassment to a person, whoever, and is punishable by five years in prison. Acts that fall into the legal definition of harassment include unwelcome lewd comments that are sexual in nature, groping or any form of physical contact that is made without consent. Staring at a person for a prolonged period of time to cause them discomfort is also a form of harassment - sound familiar anyone? All women have been subjected to such unpleasant acts at least once in their lifetime, even though the law criminalises such behaviour.

This disrespectful treatment of women showcases the height of hypocrisy when it comes to the country’s self-donned unimaginatively conservative cloak. Despite our sexually conservative culture, gender based violence runs rampant in society, and that includes putting women through a lot of discomfort when they are in public spaces.

If a woman somehow gives away the fact that she is alone and vulnerable, she will literally morph in to molester-bait. Personally I always try to avoid crowded buses or trains, but more often than not I don’t have a choice but to squeeze in and hey presto, within five minutes a pervert leans in and rubs himself up against me. This is the ideal set up for him, a pervert’s dream come true. I am cornered, with no space to manoeuvre away from him. If I do confront him I will, without fail, attract the ridicule of fellow commuters who will suggest I get a vehicle of my own.

Often when travelling on public transport, a girl (or even a grown woman for that matter) will be sexually harassed, at some point in her life. In fact, one in every four women get harassed daily. This shocking statistic was brought to light by the then Deputy Transport Minister Rohana Dissanayake. Walking along the streets in broad daylight attracts cat-callers and stalkers like moths to a flame too.

Most of the time victims never speak up or seek help when they find themselves in an unpleasant situation. It isn’t that women don’t speak up at all. Some do, but the repercussions that follow aren’t usually in their favour.  A courageous woman would sometimes bravely square her shoulders and face the groper head-on to give him a piece of her mind, yet even then, unperturbed he would leer and get off the bus to seek other prospects. Other times, the harasser might counter-blast, provoked by the woman’s bravery, and turn the tables against her by calling her vile names and accusing her of coming onto him. By-standers would often turn a blind eye and ignore a woman’s distress, so relying on fellow commuters is not an option either. When things can go so horribly sour, is it any wonder why victims hate confrontation?

That is not to say that people are completely apathetic to a woman being harassed. Some people will come to your aid, if you let them know that you are in trouble, but it is quite rare. And most woman chose not to take any chances out of fear of the ridicule and humiliation they will have to face through the rest of the journey, just in case their pleas are ignored.         

This begs the question: why isn’t sexual harassment an issue of concern to citizens?

It could be that the issue of harassment is so normalised in society that no one really gives a second thought to it, including the victims themselves. Not many people are aware of laws that criminalise sexual harassment. However, it should be borne in mind that despite being a relatively mild sexual offence, when done often enough, harassment can cause the very fabric of society to unravel. Graver crimes such as rape will be committed more often because perpetrators get more confident by the day - after all harassment is a minor manifestation of sexually motivated crimes. It is crucial that public spaces are safe for women. What is required is a collective effort by all citizens, especially the youth, to make a personal effort when you see a man harassing a woman in trying to put a stop to it so that the perpetrator realizes he can’t get away scot free.

By not speaking up in the face of harassment, you are tacitly perpetuating rape culture. We teach women and girls to modify their behaviour in order to avoid being harassed. We tell them that it is THEIR responsibility to make sure they are safe. Believe it or not, being safe is expensive; it costs us women money and time. We will always get a cab or ask someone to pick us up instead of walking on the roads late at night. Some might say that is not not a huge inconvenience, but it is. Taking the bus is a lot cheaper than taking a cab, but we still pay hundreds of Rupees rather than the odd 50 Rupees, just to be safe. We avoid certain routes and don’t travel late at night, we strategize our travelling plans. We take safer routes, we try not to make eye contact with strangers, we walk briskly with our heads down not taking our eyes off our feet. Yes, these are huge inconveniences, because our mobility is seriously hindered.

 The way women dress is often considered a reason for being harassed, but harassment happens to all women regardless of what they wear. Maybe those who wear revealing clothing get harassed a lot, but that doesn’t mean that women who wear conservative clothing are free from harassment. A woman’s worth and her safety shouldn’t be measured by the length of her skirt.

The law is in place, it is the matter of enforcing and implementing the law that needs looking in to. Victims opt out of reporting a case of harassment because either they are embarrassed or they don’t realize the severity of the crime committed on them. The chauvinistic attitudes of men with authority, such as the police, makes it all the more difficult to bring perpetrators to justice. There is also the issue of access to justice and how swiftly one will be granted a legal recourse. Even if a report is successfully put through, in our judicial system, sexual offences other than rape are given less priority. To top it off, there is a huge backlog of unresolved cases, so any new case is pushed back.

There have been a lot of public awareness campaigns launched to influence citizens and those at the policy-making level, yet the truth of the matter still remains - every woman in Sri Lanka feels suffocated in our patriarchal society. In a country where a mother is placed up on a pedestal and is treated with such reverence, how can women be treated in such a derogatory way? Day in and day out, innocent women are being harassed, be it when using public transport or on the streets. It all goes unnoticed. No one thinks it is a serious social issue, when it really is. The roads aren’t safe for women. How much more severe does the situation have to be in order for society to come out of its perpetual state of denial?

Our contemporary society perceives sexual harassment as a norm - at times a sort of compliment for a woman, when in reality degrading and objectifying her can make her feel less of a human being. The older generation is relatively desensitised to the plight women face in public. However, as the younger generation we can still make the choice not to ignore a woman being subjected to such dehumanising treatment. A simple act of showing support towards victims and confronting harassers can go a long way. It is time to make the roads unsafe for perverts, not women. As the NHDR iterates: in order for society to attain gender equality, it is absolutely crucial that norms and values surrounding gender should change. A society free of harassment is within reach. It is just a matter of making a communal effort to stamp out sexual harassment once and for all.

Blog post Asia & the Pacific Sri Lanka Gender equality Sexual and gender-based violence Youth

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