There is speculation that the government might soon charge a fee from private vehicles entering Colombo during peak hours. This is to encourage more people to use public transport. It is not clear if the fee will be enforced, but our public transport isn’t an attractive alternative for many reasons.
Among them is the stark fact that buses and trains are a hotbed for sexual harassment.
Until now, no one had tried to quantify this pervasive problem. A recent islandwide study carried out byUNFPA, titledReport of Sexual Harassment in Public Transport, shows that around 92% of those who travel in private and public buses say harassment in public transport is more evident on buses. Some 73% of passengers also complain of harassment on trains.
Three wheelers aren’t safe either: 34% spoke of harassment inside these vehicles, by their drivers.
A Snap shot of harassment in Sri Lanka
There are plenty of horror stories about harassment in buses; stories about the perpetrators flashing, grabbing, touching and leering at their victims.
Here’s one such incident a 22 year old girl experienced:
“It was 8am 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 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 crowded and disembark when the bus stopped.
Once I was out of the bus, I just couldn’t hold back the tears. I felt dirty. Some man had just used mybody to pleasure himself, while I was trapped and couldn’t even escape”.
According to the UNFPA report, incidences of sexual harassment are most frequent in private buses from 4:30am to 8:30am. Incidences reduce gradually with the least number of incidences occurring after 8pm. It’s clear that those being targeted are the schoolgirls and the working women.
The report states: Mostly affected persons (victims) are young and middle age female workers (40%) and schoolgirls (30%).
How harassment affects us
The trauma of being harassed on buses and trains doesn’t end when the victim disembarks. The mental distress lasts throughout the day and possibly for weeks depending on the severity of the harassment. 37% of the respondents said that it had affected their performance at work, 28% reported that they were unable to focus on their school work because of their lurid experience during their commute to school.
Many of them (44%) said that the harassment affected their personal life.
The government is aware of the grim situation. There is a helpline for victims and notices announcing it are prominently displayed inside buses. But somehow, there seems to be gaps in the implementation process.
According NaushalyaRajapaksa from UNFPA, who coordinated the study, many respondents had said that when their called the helpline, they were asked for the license plate number of the bus (which a victim is not likely to note down right after a traumatic experience) or the perpetrator’s identity card number.
Apart from the government, youth groups have conducted awareness programmes as well. For example, Reach Out having conducted disruptive theater and forum theater performances and Sri Lanka Unites with their Show You Care campaign.
Going by the UNFPA study, a lot more needs to be done to eradicate the menace. Interventions need to be a more widespread, not only focused on Colombo. There are 5,222 SLTB on the roads across Sri Lanka, according to the Ministry of Transportation and Civil Aviation. And our trains make a grand total of 122,269 trips around the island (2013 figure). An islandwide campaign is much needed. Hopefully, it will teach young people that sexual harassment is unacceptable, so that the generations to come will have the freedom to travel and not be afraid.
In August 2014, a young woman named Thilini Imalka reacted violently when a man harassed her at the Waryapola bus stand. A bystander filmed on his mobile phone of her slapping the man repeatedly while yelling at him – the video, shared on Facebook, went viral and was picked up by the mainstream media as well. In a bizarre twist, Thilini was arrested by the police for assault, and sections of the media portrayed her harasser as the ‘victim’. The whole episode showed society’s lack of understanding and empathy for women who endure sexual harassment in public spaces and public transport.
Sri Lanka certainly has a long way to go before this menace can be eradicated. Let’s hope that the alarming results of the UNFPA reportwill motivate the government and civil societyto work towards ending sexual harassment in public transport.