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Making public transport safe for women
Published Date: 10/07/2018 (Tuesday)

By Kalana Krishantha

A majority of women in Sri Lanka have endured sexual harassment on public transport, and incidences of harassment continue to increase daily despite continuous efforts to combat sexual violence, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) and National Council for Road Safety, Sri Lanka, claimed recently.

Research released in 2015 by UNFPA, offers a view into women’s vulnerability to violence and discrimination, issues that are poorly understood - both in Sri Lanka and globally - because of underreporting and lack of data. It reveals that around 90 per cent of women and girls who use public transport services have endured sexual harassment. Despite the low frequency of formal data, these problems are all too common to women and girls.

Ritsu Nacken, Country Director and representative of UNFPA in Sri Lanka claimed that the sexual harassment of women in public transport was a global issue and not limited to Sri Lanka.

“However, the situation in Sri Lanka is not satisfactory. We have to understand that it should improve further for a better future. High ethical standards are needed. UNFPA will continue work with the Government to create a better future and change the situation for women and girls in this country.

“Despite our continuous efforts, harassment still prevails and has been intensifying. The support of the media and ethical reporting is necessary to achieve our aims,” she said.
She expressed those views at a media workshop titled ‘Does she travel safely?’ organized by UNFPA at Colombo last week.


Sharika Cooray, a Gender Analyst at UNFPA Sri Lanka, briefly explained the research that was carried out in 2015.

“The study also shines a light on the far-reaching effects that this harassment has on the lives of women and girls, from their education and livelihood, to their place of residence and personal relationships. Initiated in 2015, the study involved 2,500 individuals, between the ages of 15 and 35. Information was gathered through interviews, questionnaires and focus groups. Every administrative district in Sri Lanka’s nine provinces was represented,” she explained.  She pointed out that women reported experiencing a broad range of harassments on public transport, including leering, verbal abuse and unwelcome advances, but a majority of the harassments was physical.

“Seventy-four per cent of women and girls reported they had been deliberately touched. Sixty per cent reported their personal space had been invaded, and 52 per cent said the offender’s genitals were rubbed against their bodies. Women in Sri Lanka - especially low-income women - rely heavily on public transport. Half of female respondents said they use it to go to work, and 28 per cent said they used public transport to pursue their education.”

“There is evidence that harassment and the threat of harassment influences a woman’s mobility, public life and overall well-being. A quarter of the participants said harassment occurred monthly. About 12 per cent stated it occurred daily. In some cases, they reported that it was so frequent and alternative modes of travel so scarce, that they moved residence to escape.

“Forty-four per cent of women said that harassment on public transport affected their personal lives. Twenty-nine per cent said it had an impact on their school performance, and 37 per cent said it negatively affected their work performance,” Cooray said.
Dr. Sisira Kodagoda, Chairman of NCRS said that while the country had been talking about these research results for years, there had been no progress thus far.
“In 2017, we also talked about this issue. Now, in 2018 we are still talking about it. Next year too, we will talk about this. But, harassment continues to happen. This is a never-ending story,” he lamented.


He pointed out that only 4% of victims complained about harassments to the Police and that was due to the weaknesses of our legal system.

“When a girl or woman goes to the Police to complain against sexual harassments, the Police officers frequently harass the victim, asking unnecessary questions. So, she becomes helpless. Due to that reason, females are afraid to complain to Police and perverts can roam freely in society.”
He noted that attitudes of Sri Lankan society had contributed to the prevalence of sexual harassment in public transport.

“As we all know, Sri Lankan women face numerous problems. They have issues with finances, how to feed and educate their children and problems at work. Often, the burden of the family is on the shoulders of mother rather than the father. Even in buses and trains they focus on such issues rather than pay attention to their surroundings.
“Even if a male touches them inappropriately, they may not pay too much attention as they are focusing on other issues. Sometimes, males think this as an approval of their harassment. But, it’s a false idea. We should understand this reality and look on this issue compassionately,” he said.

Dr. Kodagoda further added that many private bus conductors and drivers are addicted to drugs and don’t care about such issues as they are intoxicated.
“Our country should have proper policies and change attitudes of people. Laws are not successful if attitudes are bad. Even now we have very good laws regarding public transport. But, the problem is that laws have not been implemented. To implement laws, we should have people with good attitudes. Even Police Officers should have positive attitudes to women and girls,” he said.

He further elaborated that women should be more active to protect women`s rights and establish strong passenger communities consisting of women using public transport such as buses and trains.
Lakshi Sandamini, Deputy Director of the National Transport Commission (NTC) revealed that they have not been received any complaint over such sexual harassment for years.

“There are many claims related to sexual harassment, but surprisingly, we have not received any complaints for years. It seems like women are not interested in complaining, because they may think that it is useless,” she said.
A Legal Advisor to UNFPA, Attorney-at-Law Udeni Thewarapperuma, also claimed that sexual harassment faced by women in public transport affected to their employability as well as education.

She said that attitudes of males about females were very bad in Sri Lanka.
When Ceylon Today asked whether attitudes and stereotypes over gender identities were more psychological than social and if it was necessary to change the stereotypes of females over their social roles etc. before changing male attitudes, she was in agreement.

Unethical reporting

“From childhood females are forced to think and behave in a certain way, including the way they dress. Sometimes they are conditioned to think they are inferior to males. These attitudes have been there for decades. Thinking patterns cannot be changed easily. That’s also a main problem in Sri Lankan society,” she said.

Meanwhile, journalist Manjula Samarasekara claimed that unethical reporting and the media have also paved the way for an increase in sexual harassment of women in the country. He alleged that when reporting such instances of harassment many journalists tried to highlight the physical features of women using various adjectives.


“The media should not reveal names of victims. There was a famous rape and murder incident on Indian public transport. However, the Indian media did not reveal her name, and even now people identify her by the pseudonym, ‘Nirbhaya’. If that happened in Sri Lanka, our media would have revealed all of that girl’s details within 24 hours.”

He said that news reporting should be changed. “Women and men alike, should be educated through the newspapers, radio talk shows, TV news etc. about the importance of this issue. But, unfortunately it is not happening now. Instead of doing it, in some cases, we have observed even female journalists being harassed by their superiors.”
He added that in our society, women are often sex objects where terms such as ‘baduwa’ or ‘kaali’ are used to describe them. Unfortunately, females too have got used to these words and it is now common parlance.

As Samarasekera observed, such words have become so normalized that some women also use them on each other. That’s the ground reality.
To find out why men behave in such a way against women on public transport services, as well as look at other aspects of society and the issue sexual depression, Ceylon Today contacted psychotherapist Dr. Romesh Jayasinghe, Founder of the Institute of Mental Health.

He revealed the underlying reasons for an increase in sexual violence in the country was primarily due to the media, influence of Indian movies and dramas, misuse of the internet, sexual depression in relation to cultural restrictions, lacunas in the Legal structure, drug abuse and lack of sexual education.
Dr. Jayasinghe revealed the many reasons which could contribute to increasing gender disparity and the intensification of sexual violence including sexual harassments on public transport services in Sri Lanka.

According to him, “Indian movies and dramas which attract many Sri Lankans are full of such type of incidents. When people watch more and more of those things, this becomes normal to their mindset and it leads them to emulate those incidents.”


Another contributory factor, he explained, confirming the views of journalist Samarasekera, was media reporting.
“Unethical reporting by the media has been paving the way for copycat behaviour in audiences. And also, the way they are reporting, stimulates the spread of such incidents. Also, the internet is responsible for the wave of rapes. Pornographic films have contributed a lot to make Sri Lankans maniacs when it comes to sexuality.”
He suggested blocking access to pornographic websites in Sri Lanka.

When Ceylon Today pointed out that it would restrict internet freedom, Dr. Jayasinghe said that if people didn’t know how to behave with other people and instead behaved like animals, it had nothing to do with ‘internet freedom’.
Therefore the banning of internet porn sites in Sri Lanka is the need of the hour in the current context.

Culture, also plays a role in generating the prevailing negativity about sexuality, he said.
“Due to cultural attitudes, victims do not like to reveal the truth. Also, there is a lack of sexual freedom.”
According to Dr. Jayasinghe, prostitution should be legalized. “I don’t think it will cause much damage to our culture. Thailand is also a Buddhist country, but prostitution is legalized there.

“On the other hand, on many occasions, offenders get bail or escape from the law using the gaps in the Legal system. The Legal system should be restructured to punish offenders. The number of those convicted is relatively low in this respect. This condition should change.”
According to him, when offenders are not punished, people don`t have any fear about engaging in such brutal acts.

Sexual literacy is terribly low and that leads people to behave in an abnormal manner, Dr. Jayasinghe pointed out, suggesting therefore that initiating a more regularized sexual education from Grade Nine onwards to all students, is a way out of this malaise.
He shares the same view as Dr. Kodagoda that drug abuse is also contributing to the increase in the number of abnormal behaviour exhibited by people.

“People used to drink alcohol excessively. But now the percentage of alcohol users is dropping. Instead of alcohol, now they are getting addicted to more poisonous drugs like heroin, which negatively impacts the nervous system.”
In civilized society, one major indicator of development is gender equality and how that society treats vulnerable groups like women and girls.

However, the ground reality is, in our country, girls and women face great challenges not only on public transport, but also in schools, state universities and in society at large. Therefore, a radical transformation of attitudes in our society is essential to make a difference.

Source: Ceylon Today

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