By Maryam Azwer
Even in the best of times it is certainly no cakewalk to travel by bus in Sri Lanka. But what is worse is if you are a woman. The general perception in our society is that if you are a woman, and you travel by bus, you will, at some point or the other, be a victim of sexual harassment. It is a norm, and there is nothing our women can do about it.
Women have raised the issue in the past. Activists have campaigned against it; they have even offered solutions, but none of these were implemented – or if they were, they did not last long.
“This is a social problem,” says women’s rights activist Shreen Saroor. “A woman’s body is being objectified. It is a criminal offence to sexually harass a woman at the workplace or in public,” she says.
Harassment on buses continues, says Saroor, because “We have a culture of tolerance when it comes to a woman’s body being abused. This is also partly due to women not coming forward and challenging sexual harassment in public. They find it difficult to talk about because they feel it’s humiliating.”
If we want to put an end to bus harassment, she says, we should start talking about it – and keep talking about it. “We need to create awareness. Women have to talk about it. If we aren’t reporting these incidents, we can’t accuse authorities of not taking any action. I don’t think our authorities are taking violence against women seriously – and bus harassment is a degrading crime, costing women their dignity.”
Sri Lankan women have dealt with bus harassment in different ways. A large number of them have let it pass, resigning to the fact that they can’t do anything about it. Some of them glare at, scold or hit back at the pervert on the bus. A very, very small number of them fight back and see that he is punished. The Sunday Leader spoke to some women and girls of varying ages to find out why they think bus harassment even exists, and how they think it should be handled.
“It happens because they just stuff people into the buses,” says Afra Naufel, a student. “Usually, I stare and move away. But I think we should make a scene so that the man would be dealt with, and won’t repeat it. They should have some sort of immediate punishment, like a fine. We need more buses, so that it won’t be so crowded.”
A mother of two young children pointed out that most victims are very young girls, sometimes even little children. “These perverts have a knack of picking out girls and women least likely to fight back. They could even go for little girls. I think women whose young daughters travel by buses should take care when dressing their daughters – don’t let them wear provocative clothes when using the bus,” she adds. “Also, some men target crowded buses because of the opportunities they present. Sometimes you get seated next to a pervert by no choice of your own, and you can’t even get up,” she says.
“It has happened to me in the past, and there was a time when I cried. At that time, I wasn’t in a position to do anything,” says Suchithra Chandrasekar, another student. “I think these are people with no conscience. They don’t deserve a place in society.”
“I think it happens because there are so many desperate people on the bus,” says Arya Anver, a college student. “We should make a scene. I have kicked people, slapped people’s hands away, scolded them, and glared at them. We also need to educate people that this is wrong, and start treating these perverts like animals.”
Almost all women are of the opinion that these bus-haunting perverts deserve severe treatment.
“Action should be taken against people who harass women on buses, the police should tackle it. Advice won’t work,” says Agnes Navaratnam, a school teacher. “Women should also be a little stronger. It depends on the woman, too. Some of them aren’t courageous enough. They’re self-conscious, and worry about what others will think if they raise an issue. We have to act strong. No one can do anything but the woman herself.”
Like Navaratnam, many women and girls seem to believe that if anyone can do something about the situation, it’s the woman herself; somehow, most don’t seem to place much faith in authorities.
“It’s absurd. It’s terrible, and under most circumstances there’s nothing a girl can do except protect herself,” says Kaumadee Ratnayake, a college student. “And it’s become so common, people don’t give a damn about it.” However, there are also those who believe that trying to fight back, and creating a scene, isn’t necessarily a wise option.
“In many cases, if the girl protests, the man would turn around and verbally abuse the girl,” says Audrey Wijeratne, former vice principal of St. Lawrence’s School. “That’s why most of these girls don’t do anything about it. The best thing is to make our girls aware that these things happen, and what to do if it does. Shift you seat, move away. Sometimes, if you make a fuss, it could ricochet on you. What can people do? Especially in the case of young girls, they are embarrassed. But what can we do, other than safeguard these kids?”
Actually, there is so much the Sri Lankan woman could do to ensure that sexual harassment on buses does not go unpunished. Yet, somehow a lot of women are unaware of this, or feel that justice will not be meted out anyway, due to various obstacles.
Women In Need (WIN) is an organisation that looks into women empowerment, and women and child abuse. WIN also operates a hotline for women to make complaints about harassment and violence against them. Sumithra Fernando, one of WIN’s directors, says that they do receive calls regarding bus harassment, but they can’t always do something about this issue.
“The problem is many women don’t like to complain, due to shame, and stigma,” says Fernando. “There is also the problem of witnesses; the public doesn’t always co-operate.” Harassment on buses should be promptly reported to the police, she says. “They are supposed to and required to take action. But if there are no witnesses, the police can’t do anything.” On the other hand, like activist Shreen Saroor pointed out, such sexual harassment is indeed a criminal offence under Section 345 of the Penal Code. “Sexual harassment is given a very wide definition,” says Fernando. Even comments that a woman finds sexually offensive will count as harassment, she explains.
“The laws are very stringent, but very few people make use of it. Also, problems exist in practical situations,” Fernando says. “Women also have to be assertive. We have to object to it. When a woman is harassed, she could shout, make everyone in the bus hear her. The other people should also show some civic courage, object to these things happening in public.” There are quite a few things women could do to initiate some action, says Fernando. “Get the bus number, call up authorities immediately. We could do something, like take action to prevent it in future.”
As for creating awareness, Fernando says, “We initiated a sticker campaign around two years ago, along with the police.” Such measures haven’t entirely dealt with the problem, however, as many present day experiences would prove. Shifani Reffai, a student of architecture, is among those who’ve had enough, and want to see some action against bus perverts.
“Obviously, it only happens because people allow it to happen,” says Reffai, who recently founded a young women’s group, Reach Out, with the aim of promoting women’s rights in Sri Lanka; bus harassment is one of the issues she plans to tackle. “It’s become a norm because people didn’t think of it as a problem. I think that people are wired in such a way, if they are able to do something wrong for long enough, with no action taken against them, it ceases to be wrong for them. Women feel powerless, because society as a whole tolerates it,” she says. “Some just let it pass; they say it’s just boys being boys.”
She points out that while at the workplace, or any other public place, sexual harassment may be condemned, “For some reason, in the bus it’s tolerated.” Reffai also believes that women and girls who travel by bus should be prepared to handle any harassment that comes their way. “Women need to toughen up. They need to be able to defend themselves. If someone abuses you, kick them, trample their feet. Harassment of women on buses is wrong, and we should stand up to it.”
“Women also need to be educated. I think girls feel ashamed about bus harassment. They should be a bit bolder, talk it out. I think it’s also the fault of the culture that women are brought up in. Women sometimes don’t really feel like they can do anything about such harassment.” As for action that authorities could take, Reffai, like many others, suggests increasing awareness. “Put up stickers in buses, and posters everywhere. This is blatant sexual harassment. Take precautionary steps, and also don’t let it go unpunished; impose immediate fines.”
Meanwhile, women’s rights activist Saroor offers other suggestions too. “Be more positive addressing these issues,” she says.
“Operate a separate bus for women. Many working women travel by bus, so it could be promoted as a lucrative business. Make sure all stakeholders are together in handling the issue of bus harassment; bus owners, the CTB, police, judiciary, everyone.
“The police can go in civil uniform in crowded buses and arrest people in public, shame them. We need to set an example, and make sure laws in the country are implemented properly.” Everybody has plans, everybody has solutions. Where harassment of women on buses is concerned, perceptions differ even among the women themselves. Some believe it’s our fate; others are prepared to fight it till it ends. At the end of the day, it’s a simple enough analysis. Women use the bus to get from one place to another. Basically, they use it to get about daily life. If they continue to get harassed on the bus, it means they can’t live their normal lives without facing blatant sexual harassment – and what does that say of the lives Sri Lankan women live?
Section 345 Of The Penal Code
Whoever, by assault or use of criminal force, sexually harasses another person, or by the use of words or actions, causes sexual annoyance or harassment to such other person commits the offence of sexual harassment and shall on conviction be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both and may also be ordered to pay compensation of an amount determined by court to the person in respect of whom the offence was committed for the injuries caused to such person.
1. Unwelcome sexual advances by words or action used by a person in authority, to a working place or any other place, shall constitute the offence of sexual harassment.
2. For the purposes of this section an assault may include any act that does not amount to rape under section 363 or grave sexual abuse under Section 365B.
3. “Injuries” includes psychological or mental trauma.