Sexual harassment in public transport : Women, fight against fear and shame!

The United Nations Family Planning Association (UNFPA) recently stated that 90% of women in Sri Lanka, aged between 15-35, have been sexually harassed in public buses and trains. Sexual harassment on public transport is an everyday occurrence for millions of girls and women living in some of the world’s biggest capitals.

A facebook page named Street Harassment Hurts (SHH) was created after the Wariyapola incident in 2014. “We saw mixed reactions when a girl retaliated to being harassed,” they said. SHH group who prefers to keep their identities anonymous said the purpose was to highlight issues of harassment in Sri Lanka, and create conversation and dialogue around it. “Many people do not know that you can be jailed for harassing someone. We continue to empower people through giving them a platform they could seek help from.”


A journalist, Isuri Kaviratne says

A journalist, Isuri Kaviratne has been experiencing harassment in public transport often. Sharing one of her recent experience with the Sunday Observer, she says, during one of her journeys in the night on the 138 route, in a bus bearing number NA 6485 she was subjected to harassment by the conductor himself.

“All went well till we reached Kirulapone, when the rear of the bus was less crowded, where I happened to stand. However, the conductor asked me to join the tightly knotted people standing in the front half of the bus. I said no, “I do not want to go to the middle of the crowd when there is plenty of space here” but he insisted that there was no space for other people to get in,” she said.

Kaviratne said, she saw him moving among the commuters in the crowded area, brushing himself on all the passengers, intentionally or unintentionally. Then he started brushing himself on me for refusing to stand with the crowd.

“He tried to push me with his elbow, rubbing himself on me. Having worked at a newspaper, my first instinct was to call a colleague rather than the police. I was told by my colleague that there is a hotline dedicated to such complaints and the best thing would be to call them the following morning,” she said.

“This was not the first time I was subjected to harassment in buses and it was not the worst situation so far either. Both hotline numbers given in the National Transport Commission did not work. The mobile number was out of service and no one picked up the land line. My colleague gave me another number, of the Road Passenger Transport Authority and this worked. They took down the complaint and asked me when I could come to the Authority to formally lodge the complaint. I gave them the dates convenient, but they never responded,,” she said.

Kaviratne says, “Daily commuters of buses would know that harassment in public buses is not a rare occurring. Many friends and colleagues helped me with the research. We concluded that the most responsive was calling 119, while being in the bus. A friend suggested the Children and Women’s Bureau of Sri Lanka Police but I did not go to the Bureau to complain.” Kaviratne questioned, “Will I be safe to walk along the same road tomorrow if I complain today? “I have men who are friends, who are embarrassed at such behaviour, who try to protect me from those men,” she said.


Kamani Jinadasa says

Lawyer, Consultant in Gender/ Adolescent health and Executive Director of Shanthi Maargam, Kamani Jinadasa spoke to the Sunday Observer. She says, “If a person is sexually harassed, the available redress is dependent on where the harassment occurred.

“If the incident occurs in public, the complaint can be lodged with 119 Police Hotline. If in public transport it can be reported to the Transport Commission Hotline 011-7 555 555; Police Hotline 119; Police Children and Women’s Bureau Hotline 011- 2 444 444,” Jinadasa said.

She explained that the reasons for sexual harassment to go unreported are as follows:

The criminal justice system and the law enforcement authorities do not encourage complaints

Victims’ fear of making matters worse

Fear of harm to one’s name and one’s reputation

Normalization of it as a common occurrence in the workplace, places of education or public transportation

Fear of being followed if sexual harassment takes place in public places and public transportation

Lack of awareness about legal relief Absence of sexual harassment prevention policies , and The common practice of blaming victim-survivors rather than the aggressor.

“So far there are no national level statistics on the prevalence of sexual harassment across all spheres. But the UNFPA conducted a National Study on Sexual Harassment in Public Transport in 2015[1] which revealed that 90% of women have been subjected to sexual harassment on public buses and trains. Further, according to this study, 92% of the respondents never sought help from law enforcement when facing sexual harassment in public transport. It was noted that they were not in a practical position to take complaints of sexual harassment to the police at the time of the incident. If incidents continue to take place, the findings show that women and girls attempt to complain to the police through family or friends,” she said. Jinadasa added that people can be educated about their rights on sexual harassment through the media, social media, public campaigns and within organizations.

Alongside creating awareness, we need to create an environment and a mindset of zero tolerance for sexual violence, including sexual harassment against all genders, women, men and transgender, and reduce the sense of impunity that perpetrators experience.

“I believe, the laws are adequate – what is required is the change of mindset of all, to learn to accept that sexual harassment is not due to any fault of the survivor and that perpetrators, regardless of any social status, are held accountable for their actions,” Jinadasa said.


Dr. Praneeth Abeysundara says

Sociologist and senior lecturer, Department of Sociology and Anthropology, University of Sri Jayawardenepura, Dr. Praneeth Abeysundara speaking to the Sunday Observer said, sexual harassment in public transport has become a common nuisance for all those who yearn for ‘civilised’ behaviour in a public place.

“The main reason I see is the breakdown of moral values among the present day generation. The deterioration of morals has been seen in an unprecedented manner. The ‘openness’ in every sphere due to the exposure of social media has aggravated this.”

“Harassments were ‘less heard of’ before, may be due to the absence of technology. I believe, sexual harassment has been present throughout history. But, we got to know most of them through the traditional media which were not sophisticated in informing a larger or wider audience. But now, accessibility and transmission power are immense. I think it is technology that helps to gain knowledge of anything within seconds or even live the incidents that happen,” Dr. Abeysundara said. He said, all we could do within our ‘civilised’ norms to reduce sexual harassment has been tried. “The failure is the failure of the people who engage in these insane, unethical and mean activities. Law in this regard is also helpless since law cannot control human thinking that associates with pervert behaviour. Awareness raising programs have been helpless against the media which popularize ‘pro-sexual behaviour’ through pornography available freely. Nothing is possible till people themselves understand the gravity of what they do and begin to respect the other,” he said. According to Dr. Abeysundara, the increase in the number of incidents can be attributed to the deterioration of values, norms, attitudes and beliefs of the ‘misdirected’ globalization forces. Attitudinal change to counter this anomic situation is the key.

“There are no role models if you look at society; fear and shame have no place and people think violating the rule of law is the order of the day. The increasing amount of anti-social behaviour at all strata has made sexual harassment a breeding ground for the newcomers to settle in,” Dr. Abeysundara said.

He said, “A victim should be able to inform the immediate members in the mode of transport, then the police or the hotline of the Children and Women’s Bureau for immediate (re)action. Then, she should know the legal framework that aids her to prove her innocence and win her due rights. The females should be informed to fight against fear and shame and the negative labelling they receive in these circumstances.”


Police comment

Deputy Director of the Children and Women’s Division of Sri Lanka Police, W. A. S. P. Lanka Rajani Amarasena says “The UNFPA report says, of the 90% women sexually harassed, only 4% had complained to the police. This is because the police complaint is a long procedure which delays and kills time, during which process some victims change their minds. Some women just ignore, not aware that it is a crime, Some are afraid of the law and do not like to go to the police and the courts, as the whole country would get to know. Women from traditional families are shy to complain.”

“A victim should immediately dial 119 or call the hotline: 2666666 when harassed in a bus. She should inform the bus number and the route. The closest women police will stop the bus and inquire about the problem,” she said.


Dr. N. Kumaranayake says

Clinical Psychiatrist, Dr. N. Kumaranayake of the Government Base Hospital, Psychiatry Unit, Kiribathgoda spoke about the psychology aspect of sexual harassment. According to him people behave in this way due to psychological problems.

“Paraphilias are abnormal sexual behaviours or impulses characterized by intense sexual fantasies and urges that keep coming back. Often, a paraphilia may be necessary for the person who has it to function sexually, despite the fact it may also be a source of significant distress.

Paraphilias can lead to personal, social, and career problems and a person with a paraphilia may be called “kinky” or “pervert.” The associated behaviours may also have serious social and legal consequences. There are three paraphilias commonly created sexual harassment on the public transport. Those are Exhibitionism (“Flashing”), Frotteurism and Touchrism,” he said.

He said, “Exhibitionism involves someone exposing his or her genitals to an unsuspecting stranger. Sometimes called a “flasher,” he feels a need to surprise, shock, or impress his or her victims. The condition is usually limited to exposure with no other harmful advances. Nevertheless, “indecent exposure” is illegal.”

“Like most unusual sexual interests, exhibitionism tends to be far more common among men than women.In addition to being more inclined to expose themselves, men are also more likely to be arrested for such behaviour, probably because a female flashing victim is more likely to call the police than a male flashing victim. Research has found that some exhibitionists report flashing others as young as age 12. Perhaps not surprisingly, this behaviour is linked to having poor social and interpersonal skills, which suggest that some individuals may turn to this behaviour because they are unable to establish a more conventional sexual relationship,” Dr. Kumaranayake said.

He said, with this problem, the focus of the person’s sexual urges is on touching or rubbing his or her genitals against the body of a non-consenting, unfamiliar person. “In most cases of frotteurism, a male rubs his genital area against a female, often in a crowded public location. The contact made with the other person is illegal. There is no scientific consensus concerning the cause of frotteurism. Most experts attribute the behavior to an initially random or accidental touching of another’s genitals that the person finds sexually exciting. Successive repetitions of the act tend to reinforce and perpetuate the behaviour,” he said.

“Males are much more likely to engage in frotteurism than females. Females are the most common victims of frotteurism. Most acts of frottage are performed by those between 15 to 25 years of age. After the age of 25, the acts decline. Behaviour Therapy is commonly used to try to treat frotteurism. The frotteur must learn to control the impulse to touch non-consenting victims,” he said.

Dr. Kumaranayake said, Medroxyprogesterone, a female hormone, is sometimes prescribed to decrease sexual desire. Frotteurism is a criminal act in many jurisdictions, usually classified as a misdemeanor. As a result, legal penalties are often minor. It is also not easy to prosecute frotteurs as intent to touch is difficult to prove. In their defence statements, the accused often claims the contact was accidental. Sexual arousal is based on grabbing or rubbing one’s hands against an unexpecting (and non-consenting) person. It usually involves touching breasts, buttocks or genital areas, often while quickly walking across the victim’s path. Some psychologists consider toucherism a manifestation of frotteurism, while others distinguish the two.

A 22 year old girl who wished to remain anonymous shared her bad experience with us. She said, “It was 8 am and I was taking the (bus route) 154 from Kiribathgoda to Baudhaloka Mawatha. I try not to travel in buses at this time because the buses are usually filled to the point at which people are almost spilling out of them, but I was late that day and I felt I didn’t have a choice.”

“For most part the journey was fine, even though I wasn’t able to get a seat and had to stand for half an hour. At Borella, however, people filed into the bus and soon I had bodies pressed against me and I could hardly breathe. As the bus began to move, I felt the man behind me grind himself on me. I knew what he was doing but I didn’t know how to react, I didn’t want to cause a scene. Completely helpless I almost broke down as I tried to squeeze through the crowd and disembark when the bus stopped,” she said.

She said once she was out of the bus, she just couldn’t hold back the tears. “I felt dirty. Some man had just used my body to pleasure himself, while I was trapped and couldn’t even escape,” she said.

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