2019 Apr 3
Sexual harassment is something that is no longer hidden under the rug. A woman’s body is her own right, not an object to be handed off as and when needed, not an object to be touched without consent. The world is changing to respect that view; both women and men are speaking up on the issue yet there is so much more to be done to unravel years of archaic, detrimental thinking.
There are many campaigns already in place to combat this issue and one of the more recently launched is Not on My Bus by Oxfam in Sri Lanka on 28th March, gathering the participation of various government authorities, advocates, and partners. The campaign is a local adaptation of Oxfam International’s Enough Campaign, which aims to tackle harmful beliefs and societal norms that perpetuate violence against women.
Millions of women across the globe, both young and old, are subject to violence. In Sri Lanka, here are some common figures. 90% of women and girls have experienced sexual harassment on public transport and only a meagre 4% report the incidents. This harassment not only affects a woman’s psychological mindset and how she responds in certain situations, it can even affect our economy. We have an incredibly low rate of 36.4% female labor force participation. Is this because they feel unsafe and unheard in what they feel is predominantly a man’s world? Is it because they’ve been brought up thinking they’d be more suited to raising children? Be it sexual harassment, workplace harassment, or their upbringing, it degrades a woman and robs her of her potential and capabilities.
Sexual harassment is a punishable offence in Lanka so why don’t these girls take a stand? Why don’t the people around the victim stand up for her when she is clearly being violated? We’ll be breaking down what runs in their minds below.
Oxfam in Sri Lanka carried out a research study to specifically understand the attitudes of the local women when it came to sexual harassment and rooted out age-old norms that shaped their beliefs – norms that outlined toxic gender roles and responsibility. Their research was carried out with their partners in workshops in Colombo, Kandy, Katunayake, Batticaloa, and Killinochchi with diverse participants between the ages 16 to 50.
They identified 13 norms around gender roles and sexual harassment – the most prominent of which included:
• ‘The ideal woman is submissive, ‘accepting male dominance’, obedient’ etc.
• ‘Women should dress decently to avoid harassment. If they dress differently, they are inviting harassment upon themselves and should not expect any different.’
• ‘Bystanders do not interfere and bystanders should not intervene because it isn’t their business; they’ll get into trouble or make the situation worse.’
• ‘Good women do not complain, yell, or hit perpetrators.’ (Oxfam also tested this out in two separate incidents, where hired actors acted out a scene. The female actress, upon being harassed, created a commotion and called out the perpetrator and in both incidents was told to stop creating a scene by a bystander).
• ‘Perpetrators will continue to harass, we should not expect any different.’
These are the destructive beliefs that have been ingrained into the locals that participated in this study, representing an accurate depiction of why women’s safety is still highly jeopardized in public transport or in public spaces at all for that matter. Amongst the norms, there was also low trust in law enforcement due to victim blaming and a lack of productivity.
The Not on My Bus campaign decided their best strategy was to focus on bystander intervention – to transform the negative norms people acted on into more positive ones that would enable them to take a stand against sexual harassment whether they were the direct victim or not. By focusing on this aspect, the campaign allows room for much more improvement amongst our community’s beliefs in general.
The official launch included a panel discussion with 4 speakers, Sharanya Sekaram (feminist writer, researcher and activist), V. Weerasigham (gender equality and conflict sensitivity specialist), Sajeewani Abeykoon (attorney-at-law, legal officer) and Dr. Nivendra Uduman (counselling psychologist and psychotherapist). Each put forward their ideas on what this country needs to address and how the campaign intends to proceed.
“Punitive action is not the solution because we really need to talk about what culture we’ve raised them in. We are as responsible as they are for the culture that we raise them in. ’- Sharanya Sekaram
It stands true. While punishment is important, it is not the solution we should be fully focusing on. What good is punishing the consequence of harmful upbringing and influences, if we don’t stop the corruption at its source?
Amongst the speakers, Dr. Nivendra Uduman also gave us an insight on the psychological aspect of the campaign and how it needs to utilize this in people to challenge norms.
“This campaign mainly focuses on bystander intervention. What is the psychology behind a bystander? A bystander is like you and I but there are so many factors that underlie whether a bystander makes a decision to respond to a situation or not. One important factor is recognition of a situation because sexual harassment tends to be very ambiguous and subtle on public transport. So people need to be encouraged to observe. Apart from that, something that a lot of people find difficult is to really get out of the norm that tells people to mind their own business and also, diffusion of responsibility, which is a well-studied concept where we assume in those situations that someone will take responsibility.”
“This campaign has also taken away this masculine norm of having to be physically violent, in order to prevent certain things from happening, to a more assertive approach where men and women are encouraged to speak out rather than use their bodies to challenge situations like this. It gives guidelines for men and women to stand up rather than standby.”
He goes on to outline that we all have inherent biases. If someone is dressed well and look like he’s working a blue collar job, we might not consider him a possible perpetrator. We unconsciously look for certain characteristics in how a person dresses, acts, stands, to label that person a perpetrator but the fact is that sexual harassment stands across all social classes and can happen anywhere.
He made an interesting point where perpetrators too need psychological support and interventions (especially the youth who have been exposed to bad influences and toxic norms). He suggests that we acknowledge the need for a ‘culture of healing’ for both victims and perpetrators of sexual harassment, as most of the time these offenders have been victims of violence themselves.
This campaign is working on empowering victims of sexual harassment, conducting interventions and media sensitization workshops, and ensuring that media targets positive messaging. They hope to engage bystanders in the importance of intervention (especially the youth but not forgetting drivers and conductors as well).
A single perpetrator can cause years of trauma, if not a lifetime of anxiety, to a handful of women by haunting the same bus or train in a single day. All across the globe, countries are making more and more of an effort to change this, so why can’t Sri Lanka do the same? It begins with you and I, the bystanders of this punishable offence. The time has passed to remain quiet, let’s #CreateAScene and stand together with our fellow sisters against sexual harassment.