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STREET HARASSMENT of women by the bucketful

5 September 2014 07:24 am - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


n issue that has been referred to as ‘street harassment’ became a hot topic in the country last week. A     Dailymirror   team that thought it was an opportune moment to listen to the views of women on the subject were in for a great surprise; around ninety- nine per cent of women said  they had been subjected to street harassment and that they still face traumatic experiences.
Ironically we, two female journalists who visited the Pettah and Fort Railway Stations seeking public views to write this article too had to reckon with incidents relating to the very subject we were researching.  There was whistling, blocking of our paths, passing comments like, “Ah Nangi”, while brazen stares made us feel uncomfortable.

 However we found that almost all the women who spoke to us had shared these common experiences almost every day.

Some others had experienced worse and disgusting confrontations.   Tragically they said nobody appeared to be concerned about this kind of harassment. We also understood that Sri Lanka lacks laws for protecting women from street harassment and that the existing laws are insufficient and are not meaningfully operational in any case.

Either tolerate them or fight them

Samila Dilini (29) a beautician by profession said men, mostly in their mid- thirties, harass women on roads and in buses and trains. “Especially when it comes to indecent touching, it is men in their mid thirties who do that. And when they do, nobody comes to our rescue. Either we have to tolerate them or fight them,” she said.

Dresses don’t matter

Renuka Perera (46) who is an employee of a private company said she is a frequent visitor to  Pettah where whistling and indecent touching take place very often.

“I go to Pettah to buy essential household items. Obstructing my way and whistling are common. The best thing is to avoid people who resort to that type of behaviour. Dresses do not instigate men to whistle at women.

Even if you are fully covered, whistling would not stop. We have to deal with these things in day-to-day life. Actually we are helpless in this respect,” she said.

I do not react

Chathuri Jayaprabha(18), said she seldom used public transport but that she too had been subjected to whistling. “When I attend tuition classes and walk alone men whistle or say inappropriate things. I do not react but walk past them,” she said.

Harassment cannot be accepted

M. Mikdath (26) who works in a shop in Pettah said that men teasing women crudely is unacceptable. “I share a joke once in a way with customers. But, it’s not done with a bad intention. We tease in a way that does not harass women.  When young boys see a beautiful girl they might say something to make all laugh, but girls understand that it is not done with a bad intention. But matters take a different turn when some people take these to another level of harassment. I do not accept that,” he said.

Ignoring is the best

Sachini Sandaruwani (20), a student who has finished her GCE ‘A’ Levels told us that she has faced a number of incidents.

“Especially when I walk alone people have whistled. This has happened not just once or twice but on many occasions. However, I do not react on such occasions, I rather avoid such people. Whistling and catcalling would not stop. The best remedy is just to ignore them,” she said.

Why depend on the government?

Diana Kumari (21) a resident of Kelaniya said that women must stand up for their rights rather than expect the government to protect them. “We cannot blame the government for everything. As women we also have a responsibility and should stand up for our rights,” she said. Kumari also said like many other women she has faced harassment especially when using public transport,”

No-one complained officially

Kalhari Dassanayake (38), residing in England who is on holiday here, said that when she was in Sri Lanka she had faced countless incidents of street harassment. “I do not know the current situation. But when I was in Sri Lanka, indecent touching and cat calling was common. Nobody took them seriously and no-one complained [officially],” she said.

No help

Sehansa Madushani, (21) had this to say: “The mentalities of some people are strange and abnormal. They think that winking, whistling and passing lewd comments at females is normal and that it’s their right. They don’t understand or care to understand how much embarrassment and discomfort they cause girls. I also encounter similar incidents when travelling by bus or train. In such cases I either ask the miscreant why he is behaving in such a manner or tell someone near me. But fellow travellers usually ignore what happens to women in buses and trains, probably to avoid unpleasantness or because they shun ending up as witnesses in Courts.”

No protection

Roshani Senadheera(26) a government employee said, “Society is such today that no-one would come forward to protect the rights of women. Instead many find fault with women who stand up for their rights.  That is why women have to tolerate harassment. “I live in Horana and I work in Colombo. Whistling and cat calling are common. I ignore them as there is nothing I can do about them,” she said.

How do I react?

Sonali Jayasinghe (38), a housewife said it was impossible to react in situations where they face harassment. “Even as a married woman, I face harassment of various types. But how can I react? When women are alone on the road it is not safe,” she said.

Many old people are Perverts

Asoka Godawela, (55), said, “Many old people are perverts. I feel sorry for my daughter when she relates unpleasant encounters she has had with perverts on the streets. Such people find using public transport or simply walking in crowded streets most convenient to fulfil sick desires. It’s rather sad to hear stories of girls falling into trouble because of perverts.”

Problems more prevalent in crowded places

Harsha Nanayakkara, (46), is a self-employed lady who travels to Pettah regularly. When asked about street harassment faced by women, she said: “Young people have a tendency to trick young girls by whistling and making unwanted gestures on the streets. I suggest that the attitude of these young lads should be changed. I travel to Pettah even at night and I haven’t encountered any problem to date. People living around these areas are among the most corrupted in the city, yet I have no problem. These problems are more prevalent in crowded streets and buses.”

Older men are worse

R.M Sewwandi (20), a university student said people who harass women are mostly middle aged. “When I travel by bus I have faced inappropriate touching, whistling and leering by older men.” she said. Sewwandi too said that a woman’s attire has nothing to do with harassment. “Even if women are fully covered and mind their own business men would not stop harassing them in public,” she said.

Harassment in trains

Kaushalya Nallathambi, who travels by train quite often, said although many people witness what women undergo no-one comes forward to help. “I travel by train quite often and have been harassed. Once a man who was travelling in the train pressed against my body on purpose. Many people around me saw it but no one came forward to stop it. So I myself had to teach the man a lesson,” she said. [She did not elaborate on how].

The procedures are rubbish

“Street harassment is not a new phenomenon. It has taken place for many years in either public transport or on the streets. Many commitments have been made to mediate in such incidents through the police, government and other institutions, yet they have proved to be rather ineffective,” said Professor Savitri Goonesekere, a legal luminary and an international expert on the rights of women and children.

Citing the recent Warliyapola incident she said, “All the responsible institutions did not respond logically. The girl, who became the victim, was prosecuted first. The procedures followed by these institutions are rubbish and the systems followed by them are not accountable. They are now prone to take ad hoc decisions.”
“Section 345 of the Penal Code criminalises sexual harassment and the offence carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment if found guilty. But there is a doubt whether it has been put into practice. Laws can never be perfect and in turn they should focus on the problem at hand and make use of the law in a proper manner,”

“There is a serious breakdown of the hierarchy of institutions. When talking about this incident, the police made a rather illogical response. They should have first taken the complaint and listened to both parties and then taken some action. The girl was not given an opportunity to respond. I’m not trying to justify her actions but then again the procedures that were followed were rather illogical. Also this video was found on social media and you never know whether there are any technological manipulations.

We do not know whether she was provoked or what the exact incident was. It’s is in the hands of the police to make a detailed inquiry, but they failed to do their job.”

Laws are inadequate

Tissa Karaliyadda, Minister of Child Development and Women’s Affairs  said the existing laws are inadequate.“From the beginning, my stance was that the present laws with regard to offences against children and women are inadequate. I spoke about the death sentence to offenders. I believe the punishment for offenders should be stricter,” he said.

He said although offenders are sentenced to death, since it is not in operation something else should be done. The minister said such offenders should not be forgiven.

“Since a death sentence is not operative in the country we need to introduce some other punishments. Such offenders should not be forgiven at any instance. They should realise the gravity of the offence they have committed. Since the existing laws are not strong, women and children suffer. But we cannot handle this part, as it is the responsibility of the Ministry of Justice,” he said.

#Streetharassment hurts’ battle through the social media

Following the recent controversial incident in Wariyapola, a group of academically and socially qualified activists has initiated the campaign titled ‘#Streetharassmenthurts’ on social media site- Face book. Their intention is to create a dialogue among the community on street harassment of women and make it a strong and continuous campaign in public awareness.  In the social media page of #Streetharassmenthurts many have shared their experiences on street harassment and they have said that their aim is to educate people to rise against injustice without ignoring it. A female academic who initiated this campaign spoke to the  on condition of anonymity.  “I initiated this campaign to raise awareness about the harassment that takes place on the streets of Sri Lanka. Some of my male friends have told me that I’m overreacting and harassment isn’t as bad as I make it out to be. They went on to say that a whistle or a remark from a male is a sign of “masculinity”.  I completely disagree with this. Masculinity isn’t making degrading comments to women: it’s quite the opposite. I believe it’s a cowardly act. As a regular user of public transport I have been told some of the worst things one can ever imagine,” she said with a sense of frustration. “It’s almost impossible to find a female in Sri Lanka who hasn’t been harassed at least once in her life. I wanted to raise awareness on this, so that people will be more motivated to stand up to their harassers or for victims of harassment,” she said.  “Yes, we are definitely going to continue this and I know I’m not alone in this.

 I have a very loyal and strong group of ‘admins’, both male and female who are so supportive.
“It’s obviously not going to happen overnight, and we know this is going to take a few years at least, but we don’t plan on giving up any time soon.

Asked about the feedback they have received over the last few days, she said it was positive.

“We receive so many messages and comments telling us how they were not aware street harassment in Sri Lanka was so bad and that they are now motivated to stand up for themselves or others who are being harassed. However as with everything, we have critics who think we’re being sexist (which we are not) and that this is a mere Face book campaign which will not cause an impact on society. We are in the process of training people how to deal with street harassment,” she said.

Violence against women up

Rosy Senanayake-MP United National Party said, “According to a survey done recently, from 2012 up to now, violence against women has increased by twenty per cent. Street harassment is something unacceptable and yet it is happening. The Minister of Justice in Parliament said from 2008- 2012 around 600 people were convicted for committing crimes against women. But actually around 33,000 cases had been reported during this period.  The system clearly has failed to criminalise the criminal,” she said.

She pointed out the failure of the state to criminalise the criminal which has opened avenues for offenders to commit crimes against women and children as they please. The UNP parliamentarian said the state has failed to protect the rights of the women. There are laws in place but when it comes to enacting them, there is failure.

“It is not that we lack laws, we do not enact them properly. Also politicians who become offenders in cases of violence against women, should not be allowed to be engaged in politics again,” she said.

  Comments - 1

  • Menism Thursday, 06 November 2014 03:58 PM

    Why no one is speaking about building - An alternative identity- Positive role model- DignityTo Men and Boys.Because It is clear the Men who involve in harassment have problem on- Self esteem- Depression- Sexual disordersIt is also vital to make the women empower, not just wearing Jeans and earning some money.They should take responsibility of each aspect of their live and community as men do

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