Do only the non-elite face sexual harassment?

When Sri Lanka produced the first female Prime Minister in the world, the country advanced a step ahead in gender equality, and nondiscrimination of women. Yet this did not minimize the sufferings of women of the middle and lower class of the country. Discrimination, sexual violence, and domestic violence still exists among most women who lived in the rural and the outskirts of the cities. But it is not the same for the elite women of the cities.

Even whilst having a high level of education, and most importantly gender equality in education compared to its South Asian neighbors, Sri Lanka is not exempted from sexual harassment in public spaces. Buses and trains being the popular medium of public transport, the men choose these to fulfill their desires, whilst women choose these same modes of transport as having no other choice. Almost 90 percent of women who travel by public transport become harassed sexually at least once in their life time. Most women experience violence on roads and in transport on a daily basis. Yet according to UNFPA report, only 8% seek legal support.

Mallika, a woman of 48 mentioned that a young man next to her in a crowded bus had been rubbing himself against her body, and caressing her back. With one hand carrying groceries from the market, and the other holding on to the rails of the fast-moving bus, she had no option that to go through it with pain and hatred until she reached her halt. Mallika is a mother of two grown sons, and she said that the young man who had harassed her looked almost the age of her eldest son.

In Sri Lanka, it is mostly women who attend to the daily chores such as marketing, shopping, accompanying their children to schools, and attending to the other needs of the family. Most of the time it is required for them to travel out of home several times a day to meet these needs. When women are not allowed to raise their voices in public transport, against sexual harassment, when even the onlookers choose to ignore women being harassed due to fear or social stigma, when the harassed woman is accused for being harassed, and blamed for her dress, her walk, her behavior, women either choose to ignore these sufferings, or find other ways to lead their daily lives. This is where the tuk-tuks and mini – taxis play a significant role in the lives of these women. Even the working women today, use these modes of transport to avoid delays and harassment in buses and trains.

But when the female mayor of Colombo decided to halt all cars for a day, she must have only thought of the elite women who on a typical Sunday would relax in their homes after a Sunday brunch. Madam mayor forgot to consider the non-elite women who had to escort their children to Sunday schools and tuition classes, those who had to visit the Sunday pola (market) for their weekly supplies, and run errands before another busy Monday. It was on a Sunday that these women used their private cars to attend to these chores. If the mayor was from a non-elite class, she would have understood the challenges and difficulties these women would have to go through with not having cars on a Sunday.

Of course, the Mayor considered good for the environment. She may not have expected the women to voice out with anger.

Yet when she announced a ‘car-free’ Sunday in July this year, women considered it to be a burden on them. Those who had been avoiding the public transport system, were being forced towards using them. Women don’t fear of losing their money or belongings in public transports, but what they fear most is losing of their dignity. They fear the presence of men in buses. They fear the conductor of the bus who makes excuse of his job to get close to women physically. While women dread empty buses in the dark hours, they fear crowded buses at all times.

The touching in the buses and trains are not done by mistake or due to the in adequacy in space. It is mostly a deliberate act and it could be noticed that compared to young men it is the older ones who engage in these acts, such as touching the breasts, caressing the hips, rubbing genitals against the women’s bodies, opening the zippers, etc. These acts not just is sexual harassment, but it also is to do with the dignity of women, and women feel humiliated to speak out.

Women also are afraid of standing in bus halts alone as they become targets easily in bus stops. Some women stated that street harassment is getting worse in some areas of the capital city, and male by-passers spell out sexually remarks, and sometimes they say it out aloud for many to hear.

Sexual harassment is not new to any part of the world. Women from all walks of life and from all over the work have become a target to sexual harassment. Natural disasters and conflicts also impact on female sexual harassment.

It is a belief that ‘education makes a man’.

But today we see not only men without education, but also the educated harassing women in diverse ways.

Madam Mayor is an educated woman from a high-class family. By being a Mayor with powers to bring change to the societies, what change has she brought to the lives of the women.

Sri Lanka has 25% of women in the local government today. But has this changed the situation of the women in anyway?

What are these women in governance really doing in Sri Lanka? What is the mayor doing with her power? What has changed for women in this society?

If women don’t work for the benefit of women, how could it be then expected from men.

Charika | Sri Lanka