Sunday, 16 December 2018 07:28

Do you CARE enough?

Hold on for a moment. Dear reader, you would have heard numerous stories and read articles about sexual harassment on public transport. This is another such article, but we encourage you to take a few minutes to read on especially because sexual harassment in Sri Lanka’s public transportation system is still prevalent, and experts say that reporting mechanisms are still very weak.


A report shows that 90% of women have experienced some form of sexual harassment in a public bus, three-wheeler or other mode of public transportation. These incidents impact a woman’s life very seriously, especially as they make travelling to work, school or even meeting friends an incessant struggle.

Nadee was travelling from Colombo to a suburb in a bus one afternoon when a man started to feel her with his elbow. “I pushed him with my elbow and moved away,” she recalls. “He continued to touch me so I kept my handbag between us. I pushed him again. He got really angry and stood up from the seat and slapped me. There were a lot of people in the bus, but no one did anything.”

The man simply got off the bus and walked off.

Nadee is one of 16 women who shared harrowing stories about their encounters on public transportation with United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) for its ‘Don’t Look Away’ multimedia project made in partnership with British photo-journalist and creator of the ‘Cheer Up Luv’ initiative, Eliza Hatch.

UN campaign


The United Nation’s annual 16-day campaign against gender-based violence which commenced on its International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women on November 25 concluded last Monday (December 10), the day which marked the International Day of Human Rights. This year, UNFPA globally marked the campaign by highlighting the issue of sexual harassment on public transport in Sri Lanka.

The project shows that , ‘when the threat persists in public spaces, sexual harassment restricts women and girls from pursuing education and employment by restricting their movement’ and also that ‘sexual harassment undermines a woman’s health, dignity and autonomy- and suspends them in inequality’.

Statistics from a 2015 survey by the UNFPA shows that 90% of women and girls in Sri Lanka have endured sexual harassment while taking public transport, 74% of them say the harassment is physical in nature, while 92 % who encountered such harassment did not seek help from law enforcement.

In addition, 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 the harassment continues, the findings show that women and girls attempt to complain to the police through family or friends.


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 recognises 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.

The UNFPA survey indicated that 52% of respondents were aware of a law rendering sexual harassment- “any unwelcome sexual advance, request for sexual favour, verbal or physical conduct or gesture of a sexual nature, or any other behaviour of a sexual nature that might reasonably be expected or be perceived to cause offence or humiliation to another”- as a criminal offence. However, 60% were not aware that there was a penalty for the crime of sexual harassment.

‘ Don’t Look Away’

The survey also sheds light on 35 forms of harassment women encounter in public transport, which ranges from physical contact to verbal and visual actions of sexual nature. Startlingly, the report indicates that a majority of them were physical in nature.

Paramie, who shared her story with the ‘Don’t Look Away’ campaign, says the incident really impacted her negatively. She was going to visit a friend when a three-wheeler driver who learnt she was not familiar with the area her friend lived in started to say how her breasts ‘were big’ and continued to verbally harass her. Paramie, disgusted, walked off.

“It was really a wake-up call that we really shouldn’t stay silent about this, because we can’t just shut up and expect it to stop,” she declares.

In an email based interview UNFPA’s Strategic Communications and Advocacy Analyst, Randima Jayasinghe, told the Sunday Observer that such incidents takes place due to the cultural context and the power imbalances within society, and sexual harassment in public transport is unfortunately normalised.


She said the relatively transitionary nature of the offence makes it difficult to report.

“The reporting mechanism is weak, and there is an urgent need to streamline evidence-gathering processes to convict offences of this nature,” she said. Jayasinghe added that a victim can report the incident to the nearest Police station.

The UNFPA survey states that drivers and conductors are often the first persons who have the power to take action to prevent/stop harassment from happening.

A bystander can intervene through various ways. One is by the CARE method of 1.Creating a distraction and do what he or she can to interrupt the situation, 2.Asking the person who is harassed if she or he is alright and if help is needed, 3.Referring to an authority such as the police, and 4.Enlisting or getting help from others to stop the incident.

Not all bystanders have looked away when they see that something is amiss. In her revelation to UNFPA’s project, Ronali says she started to cry when a man exposed his private parts to her when she was returning home from school.

“An uncle saw that I was crying and asked me why,” she recalls. “When I told him what happened, he asked another passenger who was getting off at the same place to take me home safely. Then that person dropped my brother and I home.”

It is suggested that the CTB and other Government transport authorities should consider placing prominent warning notices in buses and trains , stating that harassment of other passengers is a criminal offence.

Social media

Increased use of smart phones, internet and social media (SM) can be used to prevent sexual harassment in public transportation. Social media can be used for naming and shaming perpetrators. Apps need to be developed to bring immediate information as to sources of help and bring relief for victims.

(Sunday Observer)

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