Will Women Ever Be Safe?

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If Sri Lanka is to achieve its economic potential, at least by 2023 or 2024, the newly elected President stated, maximising labour force participation was essential. Taking into consideration the declining female labour force participation, it is important to understand concerns affecting women. Among the many issues highlighted, sexual harassment in public transport was among the key issues that restrict the movement of women to grab economic opportunities.

“According to the nature of my job, sometimes I have to work till late at night. On one occasion, exhausted after work, I got into a bus and noticed a male passenger seated behind me. He was well dressed and in his mid-40s. He started to touch me and as I objected, he told me that I should travel in a private vehicle. This incident made me feel uncomfortable,” a victim told Ceylon Today.

At a time when the country’s economy is dwindling day-by- day and the demand for public transport is on the rise, it is not surprising that sexual harassment in public transport is also correspondingly on the increase.

Men too undergo sexual harassment

Meanwhile, studies commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka in 2015 found that 90% of women have been subject to sexual harassment in public buses and trains. According to recent findings made by Ceylon Today, a fair share of men also experience sexual harassment in public transport.

It was also noted that incidents are more prevalent during peak hours in the morning and evening when transport is more crowded than at other times. Congestion in buses or trains is a contributing factor for sexual harassment as there is unnecessary physical contact. With the recent fuel shortage, the use of public transport drastically increased, where even after a considerable number of private sector employees continued to work from home, congestion in public transport reached a peak as crowds began flooding buses and trains.

Incidents of sexual harassment takes place in public transport irrespective of travel distances. During the focus group discussions, it was noted that incidents were more likely to occur on long distance buses, subjecting the victim to face harassment for longer periods of time.

“I was in Grade Four and was nine years old when this happened; it was after school when my mother and  I were returning home. Usually, buses are crowded during this time. My mother seated me in an empty seat that got unoccupied as she was pushed forward because of the crowd. Then, a middle aged well-dressed man who was standing next to my seat unzipped his pants and was rubbing his organ on my hand. I was small and did not have any idea as to what was happening at that time. As I grew up, I learned that that was the first time I was harassed, it has been more than a decade or two, yet I feel disgusted. Even today when I see a child sitting alone in a bus seat, I get anxious,” a victim of this type of harassment said.

Women having to bear the larger part of the household burden have the need to make more frequent trips using the most economical option. However, the gendered nuances impact the usage of public transportation, with safety being a priority concern, regardless of the gender.

Another victim’s story

“I’m a male, 16-years-old and I am an Ordinary Level student. This happened to me in the school bus where a father of a primary student of our school attempted to sexually harass me. I have seen the man before taking the school bus with his son and had no reservations when he seated his child in the seat and stood next to me. At first I felt like my personal space was invaded because every time the bus braked, his whole body rubbed on me, but I did not mind because the bus was  crowded but then I felt, someone touching my genital area and to my consternation, I found it was the man standing next to me! I turned around and moved, he followed and touched my lower back, I quickly turned and called his son’s name and it was then that he stopped. It is hard to report these types of incidents in boys schools because word might get around and you may get humiliated as being a homosexual and get beaten up by bullies, even though you are the victim,”  he added.

Despite the fact that some men admitted to a few cases regarding sexual harassment experienced in public transport, a school-girl noted that she was sexually harassed in a crowded train by a middle aged man and a woman both at the same time. This occurred when she was returning home from school.

“When they commenced school after a long break, I took the train as usual, but the crowd that travelled by train has increased by leaps and bounds despite it being overly crowded. I couldn’t help but squeeze myself in since I was not sure whether there will be another train any time soon to return home. This was when I felt my school uniform being raised, a few minutes after the train commenced its journey. I feel uncomfortable even talking about it. A middle aged woman was raising my school uniform and the under skirt and ‘feeling’ my lower back, then she was pushing me against this other man, who was rubbing himself on my breast. I couldn’t move, I couldn’t scream! The compartment was overflowing but I had no one to help me out. There are days where I get into these buses or trains with many of my school friends but it doesn’t help, we all go through the same experience! Some grab our backs while standing on the foot board saying they are holding the handle, as if the handle goes through the lower half or the inside of our school uniform,” she added in anger.

The study identified 35 different actions which can be categorised as acts of sexual harassment ranging from physical contact to verbal and visual actions of a sexual nature. However, the findings indicated that the majority of sexual harassment faced was physical in nature.

Harassment in public transport

The study and statistics reveal that out of the harassment that takes place in public transport, 74% was deliberate touching of any part of the body, 52.25% was improper seating etiquette, 52% was rubbing genitalia against another’s body, 48.44% was deliberately trampling the feet, 46.28% was fixated gaze on body parts, 48.72% asking for a contact number, 45.56% suggestive/ lascivious looks and 60% unwanted crowding of personal space, excessive closeness.

As a result of limited public transport and higher demand, some may say that that the concern for personal space has to be ruled out but as opposed to this, the ‘harasser’ doesn’t care whether the vehicle is crowded or not, a crowded bus or a train compartment is just an extra bonus to him or her or both. Since the victim has a lesser chance of getting away from them because of the limited space.

Meanwhile, a few victims also boldly reported how fellow passengers do not help, even when help is sought.

“I was around 13- years- old when I began travelling by myself in the bus. I am 26- years-old now. Various kinds of harassment took place at least once a week and this happens even now. However, I have learnt to speak for myself, and I scream, scold, and sometimes fight. I now have the ability to identify immediately when a girl is facing such harassment. I have the strength to speak for them and to remove them from such situations. Therefore, if you see someone being harassed, speak for them. Be a relief to that woman. Resist the harasser. Be vigilant about small children. Let us start speaking for ourselves,” she added.

Another victim who emphasized that the Police does not care and that they asked her the first time that she reported something such as this, to ignore what happened and move on. This was the reaction of the Police when a complaint was lodged. “Absolute apathy on their part’, she said.

A worse incident

“Later I faced a much worse incident. Recently, when I was travelling in a crowded bus for a tuition class, a ‘15-year-old’, was sitting next to me. After a few minutes I saw him rubbing himself and I avoided looking at him and turned away.  However, he ejaculated on my dress before getting off the bus. There was nothing I could do, I felt helpless and I didn’t speak to anyone about it. All I could do was rush to the tuition wash room, clean the mess while crying and began focusing on the class work and acted like nothing had happened. Because, no one cares enough to listen or help. I wouldn’t have spoken about it even now if the source wasn’t anonymous,” she added.  She said if there was an effective hotline to get help with regard to these issues, it would be useful.

Some ‘harassers’ threaten and blame the victim saying they were over reacting even when someone slightly brushed against them and that they should take a private vehicle instead. Pretending that they were unaware that with the depriving economy we are living in where affording public transport itself was a luxury!

Shortcomings such as not having enough functioning State bodies to look into such issues of society, we should stop and ask for a moment whether humans were turning backwards into apes, where they see nothing but opportunities to procreate. So much so that even in a crowded bus that they are forced to ejaculate on a nine-year-old child for sexual pleasure. There can be thousands of hotlines introduced and millions of social workers preaching how to prevent such incidents but what’s the point of preaching to someone who is starving for nothing but lust? A crowded bus or a train compartment is just a feast to that person isn’t it?

As a short term solution we can demand the Government to increase transport facilities, introduce hotlines and educate children about good touch- bad touch and teach them to reach for help and even teach some adults to help. But how about  long term solutions for these types of issues?

Law on Sexual Harassment

According to Article 12 (2) of the Constitution, “discriminating against a person based on his or her sex is a violation of a person’s fundamental right to equality”. Section 345 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 1995 also recognizes sexual harassment as an offence that is criminally punishable. Under this section, sexual harassment constitutes: “Harassment of a sexual nature using assault, criminal force, or words or actions which causes annoyance to the person being harassed.” If the perpetrator is convicted, the penalty for such an act is imprisonment up to five years and/or a fine. The perpetrator may also be ordered to pay compensation to the aggrieved person.

By Nabiya Vaffoor