By Pujanee Galappaththi and Dimithri Wijesinghe
Sexual harassment in public settings has been discussed numerous times on all mediums and in the opinion of some, perhaps even over-discussed. However, the issue, it seems, has become an epidemic and is far from being solved.
From what we’ve gathered, there are three major elements in tackling the issue – the law, the enforcement of the law, and the most important, and also least talked about; mental health and psychological trauma suffered by the victims.
The trauma of it all
We spoke to Counselling Psychologist Nivendra Uduman to shed some light on the mindset of the victims following such experiences and how best to rehabilitate them and aid their recovery.
“Sexual harassment, especially in a public place, can be very distressing for individuals. The embarrassment and shame caused by harassment can have lasting effects on one’s self esteem and body image.
“Survivors of sexual harassment also often experience feelings of disgust and revulsion towards their bodies with some people adversely reacting to touch and other physical contact.
“The difficulty in achieving justice after experiencing sexual harassment can leave people feeling disempowered and hopeless. The trauma that people go through with the justice system post the encounter also has an effect on one’s mental health and wellbeing. There is a risk of some people developing mental health problems like depression, anxiety, obsessive compulsive disorder, etc. and also issues surrounding one’s body.
“One’s sense of trust and security, especially with regards to other people, can be affected after experiencing sexual harassment or assault. People experience heightened states of vigilance and arousal which make it difficult to form trusting relationships. Intimacy can also become difficult for some people as their relationship with their body and how they respond to physical contact changes after going through an experience like sexual harassment.
“Sexual activity and bodily intimacy can provoke anxiety and distress in some people as it might trigger memories, etc. about previous negative experiences. This affects relationships, social activities, and most importantly, affects one’s emotional health. Some people require assistance from a mental health professional to deal with the impact of sexual harassment while others are more resilient. Family support is of vital importance after an experience like sexual harassment.”
Enforcement of the law – what the Police had to say
Recently, an incident took place in Mirissa. A foreign woman was allegedly sexually harassed at a roadside eatery on 8 March 2019 at around 11.30 p.m. The victim – Karen Hsin – was an American national on vacation, and following the incident, she described the experience as follows in a Facebook post:
“A male friend and I, in search for coffee, walked into a rotti shop in Mirissa, a beach town along the south coast of Sri Lanka. My friend walked in and asked for a coffee, a local middle-aged man brushed past me and grabbed my vagina.”
She then described how, once she got over her shock and confusion, she confronted the man who was then defended by those around him. They appeared to be intoxicated. And while Karen quite adamantly stated that she wished to press charges, nobody took steps to help her with many of them trying to placate her in suggesting that she let him go because he was drunk.
“I was still standing in the middle of the street in front of a crowd of male bystanders trying to get the Police to come so I can file a report.”
She then described her experience with the Police, which was less than pleasant, as she was continually ignored in favour of her male companion.
“I was ignored and my friend was the main spokesman for me because he was a man,” she said.
She then quite poignantly ended her statement, saying:
“When I began writing, there were moments I wondered if my case was too small. Shouldn’t I feel lucky that he only touched me above my clothing? But assault is assault. If everyone who gets groped remains silent, those men who think they can get away with it will just grow in numbers. The man who assaulted me might never be indicted because I’m only in the country until mid-March. But I did everything in my power to report him. I chose not to be silent. I’m sharing this story because I need to let those men know I’m not afraid of them. I also want to bring light to the unfair, dysfunctional, and sexist Sri Lankan Police officers I dealt with, and hopefully to get some closure myself.”
We spoke to the Kotavila Police in reference to this incident and the Officer in Charge stated that while the lady in question claimed sexual harassment, according to some eyewitnesses, what really transpired was a casual brush of the arm against her that was interpreted as something more. However, the officer stated that the Police took the lady’s complaint into consideration and the man was taken into custody.
For more information, we were directed to the Media Secretary’s Office at the Police headquarters where we spoke to Sub-inspector Ajith Kumara, who provided more in-depth details on what transpired following the man’s arrest.
The assaulter – a 36-year-old man – was produced at the Matara Magistrate’s Court and was released on personal bail of Rs. 200,000. He is set to be produced in court on 28 March 2019.
It was also revealed how the complaint was written down; it appears that since it was written in Sinhala, certain details of the matter got lost in translation. While Karen stated that “a local middle-aged man brushed past me and grabbed my vagina”, the police report merely stated: “The man touched the woman”, and not even that he “touched her inappropriately”.
The inability to communicate with the complainant proved to be a running theme throughout this story, where Karen and her friend were constantly faced with roadblocks due to language barriers while talking to the Police.
It was evident that if a complainant came in with the intention of making an entry with the Police, they will certainly do so. However, the Police were of the mindset that our legal system is time consuming and wasteful. Therefore, their initial reaction is to suggest alternative methods of handling the situation.
As for a response to Karen’s claims that she was ignored because she was a woman, due to which male companion all the talking, the officer we spoke to did not comment.
We tried reaching Karen for a comment, but didn’t receive a response.
The legal side of things
Attorney-at-Law Shalini Fernando said: “The law with regards to public and sexual harassment is covered by several legal enactments including the Constitution of Sri Lanka, the Penal Code, and the Prohibition of Ragging and other forms of Violence in Educational institutions Act No. 20 of 1998.
“Article 12 (2) of the Constitution provides that discriminating against a person based on his or her sex is a violation of such person’s fundamental right to equality.
Further, Section 345 of the Penal Code deals with sexual harassment. The section, as amended, reads: “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.
Several other sections of the Penal Code, including Section 343; Punishment for using criminal force otherwise than on grave and sudden provocation, Section 345; Sexual harassment, and also Section 261; Public nuisance applies in cases of catcalling and inappropriate behaviour in a public setting deal with the same issue.
Further, according to the Prohibition of Ragging and other forms of Violence in Educational institutions Act No. 20 of 1998, a person causing sexual harassment while ragging any student or member of the staff of an educational institution, he or she will be given a minimum penalty of 10 years’ imprisonment and may also be ordered to pay compensation of an amount determined by court.
Thus, it is obvious that Sri Lanka is not short of laws to tackle this problem and that the problem lies in the implementation of the law.
Fernando stated: “Sri Lanka has laws in place addressing the stated legal issues, however, it is difficult for the average citizen to access the remedies the justice system makes available. It is a time consuming process, it’s costly, and it’s viewed as a taboo topic, in that women who have been subject to sexual violence of any form may be viewed as ‘tainted goods’ by the general public.
“In fact, men also face an equally gruelling judgemental process, in that they’d be viewed as ‘less masculine’ or ‘ponnayas’.”
“I feel that our issues aren’t due to shortcomings in the legislation, but instead, the environment in which people receive remedy is. There have been instances in the past where women who have reported sexual violence at a police station have in turn been raped at that very station.
“Where can one go? If you are not wealthy and cannot seek the help of a lawyer or a contact, you could be exposing yourself to more vulnerability by reporting the crime. It’ll certainly take a whole lot of your time, if nothing else.”
There’s room for a great deal of improvement in the manner in which the laws are implemented. Fernando suggested that the establishment of a safe place where victims can report their incidents would be a great start. “A project was launched in India called the ‘School for Justice’ which is a long-term solution on a micro level. The school trains abuse victims to become lawyers, empowering the victims with all the skills needed to better themselves and assist others who face a similar plight. The introduction of initiatives of this sort is advisable,” Fernando added.
Be it due to a lack of support from law enforcement personnel, inaccessibility or ignorance of the law, or the fear of being humiliated or ignored, there are endless stories of street harassment victims who suffer in silence.
Karen, in an update to her first status on Facebook, published on 13 March, stated that she
“was surprised by the attention it has garnered, the speed it was shared, and the amount of comments that have poured in…Sri Lanka is beautiful – the landscape, the culture, and most importantly, the people. As demonstrated by so many of you, there are wonderful and kindhearted Sri Lankans all over the country. The solution is not to avoid the country, but to continue the discussion of sexual discrimination and put pressure on the authorities to examine their system if it is flawed.”
We spoke to a few other people who’ve experienced sexual harassment and here’s what they had to say.
The first time I saw male genitalia was when a random guy on the road flashed me. He was a school van driver whose vehicle was parked just outside a school. My cousin sister and I were walking past the van. He got off the van, went “psst”, and dropped his pants. I must have been 12 years old when this happened. I was foolish enough to think this was an isolated incident, but I have been proven wrong many times since then.
An incident took place a few years back when I was still in school. I was on my way home in the school bus and there was a girl seated in the far left corner of the backseat. When we were around Rajagiriya, the girl looked outside the window, screamed, and then covered her face. Curious, I looked out.
A van was travelling alongside our bus and the driver of that van had one hand on the steering wheel and the other on his genitalia, probably masturbating. He was looking directly at us and grinning from ear to ear. That experience scarred me for life.
I was in the ninth grade, walking home after soccer practice. I was almost home when this nice – or so I thought – old man pointed out that I had a lot of dirt on my shirt and proceeded to dust my back. He continued: “Look how dirty you are,” and started rubbing my crotch. I wasn’t really sure what was happening. I didn’t like it so I walked off as fast as I could. I never told anyone other than a few friends who just joked about it and laughed it off.
I get groped and touched by men because they assume I’m a homosexual boy. It’s happened often. Once, a tuk driver asked me to perform oral sex on him – and that’s just one experience. We stopped using tuk tuks ages ago because it was mostly tuk tuk drivers doing it.
Hash Bandara from @hashandmanga
A guy groped my buttocks at an exhibition that was extremely packed. He kept doing it even after I turned around and acknowledged his actions. It was so packed that I couldn’t really do anything about it in that moment. As soon the crowd dissolved, the guy just disappeared.
While I was on the 166 bus going to Town Hall, two ladies, probably in their 60s, stood behind me and kept leaning into me…they were both chuckling under their breath and talking to each other. I could not understand what it was and every time I moved further into the crowded bus and moved to the side, they would move with me.
It was very traumatising. But who would actually listen to a man complaining about harassment? I feel sort of relieved telling you this and hope that you convey the fact that it’s not just women who get groped, leaned on, and caressed in buses.