By Dinithi Gunasekera
Sexual harassment has been a long prevalent ill that has been plaguing not only the nooks and crannies, but also the broad daylight of our society. Police reports submitted to the United Nations (UN) from 2012-2020 record 142 cases of rape, 42 cases of serious sexual abuse, and 54 cases of child abuse just within the first 15 days of 2020, which are alarming numbers, to say the least.
A study conducted by Amarasinghe et al (2004) at the Maradana Railway Station uncovered that as many as 94% of women of varying age groups had experienced harassment in public transport.
In fact, recent studies suggest that this issue has a devastating impact on the economy as a whole, as sexual violence has now come to the forefront not only as an issue concerning women’s rights, but also an issue that directly concerns 52% of our population, affirming the voices of brave survivors who have spoken out against this menace and strengthening the push for change brought forth by many activists.
Sexual harassment that takes place across many sections, from harassment in industrial zones and workplaces to harassment in law enforcement, directly affect the economy and contribute to lower productivity along with higher turnover, absenteeism, and a plethora of other vexations that have a direct negative downturn on the economy.
Another sphere that is affected is the tourism industry, one of the key contributors to the economy. Making this the issue that illuminated the fire, a newly initiated campaign against sexual harassment, to which well-known personalities such as Women in Need Founder Caryl Tozer have displayed their support, has been a buzzing phenomenon on social media.
In light of this, consultant content editor Dr. Devika Brendon was enthusiastic enough to share a few words with The Sunday Morning Brunch on the campaign.
In a nutshell, how would you define this campaign? What does it do?
We aim to end sexual violence, harassment, and assault and make Sri Lanka a safe place to live and work.
This is a collaborative campaign. We are equals in a collective: A synergistic posse. It’s a multifaceted approach and we have activists, journalists, and long-time community leaders on board, including members of the Child Protection Force. They are people we have worked with before. We come from diverse family backgrounds and socioeconomic strata.
Our aim is to go beyond simply raising awareness of the issue to get tangible results and justice for victims. Most collectives and initiatives raise discussions on their platforms while also in the field, so we will work on using our knowledge and complementary experience to get practical results for victims and improve the overall safety of our society.
To be frank, many women and children and vulnerable persons have been silently putting up with abuse, and should do so no more.
Additionally, the country doesn’t need a bad image that will stop tourists from making this a prime destination. We feel the authorities need to step in now and impose harsh penalties on offenders, and also commence an awareness campaign in order to stop this.
This kind of behaviour is an act against our nation and should be declared as such. We always were thought of as a friendly, hospitable country where people feel safe and relaxed, but now, how can a foreigner feel safe when even a Sri Lankan woman does not?
Being a writer, editor, and columnist in Sri Lanka, a foreign business owner contacted me a few months ago to ask for help in editing a letter she wanted to write. Her aim was to raise awareness of the widespread harassment faced by women in Sri Lanka and the high degree of violence which seemed normalised in the country, which was affecting foreign tourists and thus the tourism industry. The rape of a Russian tourist in Arugam Bay in end-August 2020 is one such example.
How do you think this campaign will aid in being a part of the proactive solution for the sexual harassment menace in Sri Lanka?
Like many of us, I’ve seen women express their outrage and offense regularly on social media at the street harassment they experience in the country, on roads, and on public transport. Many of them say that there seems to be no way their concerns can be heard. We hope to provide a path to justice: A way their stories can be safely shared and then publicly discussed in order to highlight the fact that harassment makes people feel unsafe, and that it is something the country can address and remedy.
The group is made up of experienced volunteers who know how to navigate the process of change-making with regard to laws and general policies in Sri Lanka – volunteers who are passionate about making a difference with regard to sexual harassment which is rampant in Sri Lanka.
We are designing a social media campaign aimed at raising awareness on sexual harassment in Sri Lanka and providing a space for those who have experienced harassment to tell their stories. We started by wanting to give a voice to a group that’s often unjustly attacked or ignored: Foreign women. But of course, the violence experienced by tourists and visitors takes place in a wider cultural context; the country itself, as a whole, needs to become aware that even verbal intimidation and “non-contact” harassment through gesture is a form of violence, and that systemic abuse and normalised violation of individual dignity not only lower a country’s reputation, but also damage the morale of its citizens.
We have created designated email addresses to which incidents of abuse can be reported, and the incoming reports will be edited to protect the safety and privacy of those reporting, and collated into a dossier. (Endingsexualviolencenow@firstname.lastname@example.org)
Additionally, we are experimenting with an app designed by one of our members, which can be used to self-report in a variety of crisis situations including natural disasters. A project I am a part of is looking at it as a useful technology in reporting violence and harassment.
We hope to approach the Ministries of Justice, Education (incorporating Women’s and Children’s Affairs), and Immigration; Sri Lanka Police and the Secretary of Defense; the Chairperson of the Tourist Board; and of course the Presidential Secretariat with this information, as part of a combined campaign of reform.
The reports will provide the factual basis for specific recommendations to be made to the relevant authorities, so that action can be taken to improve the reporting and processing of incidents of harassment and assault, and reduce them in number. The document will also be made publicly accessible via digital media to raise community awareness that systemic reform is needed.
It saddens me to hear that Sri Lanka is being described as a place dangerous to visit and that travellers on international forums are advised to stay away from the country. This is a complex social issue, but with co-operation, commitment, education, and awareness, it can definitely be solved.
The new Government has shown its commitment to dealing effectively with other issues which affect our safety – i.e. terrorism, the pandemic – so we feel sure that they will approach this menace in the same way and urge all sectors of the country to co-operate to resolve the issue. It is not a minority issue. It affects all of us who live here and travel here. All of us want a #safesrilankanow.
So far, how has the public’s reaction towards the initiative been?
Our first callout via social media received a hugely positive response; the posts were shared hundreds of times on Facebook, and reports started coming into the emails from the first day. Many experienced people are reaching out to us to offer their skills, advice, support, and encouragement.
Both men and women are equally committed to the goal of making Sri Lanka a safe place for all. In the process, many of our own personal stereotypes and biases are being challenged and dissolved, as we work together with our different experiences in our diverse fields with a common goal. The younger generation is definitely fuelling the energy and enthusiasm, but the older members have resilience and practical wisdom and experience which are also great assets.
So the focus is both short term and long term, and it will be a long campaign to raise community awareness.
- To show that these incidents of harassment and assault are not one-off cases but examples of a systemic need for change
- To raise accountability and improve the training of police officers who are involved in hearing and recording complaints and charges
- To make sure penalties are imposed and not waived off by the justice system
- To raise awareness that this is a national need for change, as the current situation is losing us reputation as well as revenue
- To create an ongoing media campaign in which information is rolled out regularly over a period of the next four years
Among the widespread sexual harassment cases in Sri Lanka, child abuse cases are shown to be the most vastly surging type, mostly left unresolved and even unreported, causing the survivors to be retraumatised repetitively for years and years. Do you plan to make separate special provisions/measures towards being attentive about child abuse?
The issue of child abuse and familial breakdown is so endemic to the problem of harassment that we are in the process of creating a sister campaign to deal with that specific aspect. This has a separate logo, hashtag, and email address centred on the idea of #endingsexualviolencenow in Sri Lanka. This campaign includes all local victims of abuse and violence, regardless of their gender orientation.
We are hoping to work with the Central Provident Fund (CPF), the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), and organisations such as Grassrooted Trust, Bakamoono, Equal Ground, Sambol Foundation, and Think Equal to create educational resources, support services, and training courses specifically centred on sexual respect, consent, and ethics in regard to the formative beliefs about self and society that children learn from a young age.
Emotional intelligence and emotional and psychological self-awareness and self-management are also skills that can be learned in their healing from trauma and abusive experience.
What are the challenges faced in moving forward with the campaign amidst the pandemic?
The reality is that lockdown means that – although you would think people’s exposure to street harassment is lessened, as most people are forced to stay at home – this restriction also increases their exposure to domestic violence and child abuse within the home. Unemployment, disrupted businesses, and uncertainty lead to an increase in people’s frustration. This campaign hopes to raise community awareness on these issues in a timely way, and provide information and resources that can help people act to protect their safety.
Ideally, sexual violence is not something women should have to endure under any circumstance. However, in a situation in which the State’s effort is insufficient to hold up to its claims, the community as a whole has to step up, irrespective of our differences, for the wellbeing of all.