As Sri Lanka Unites’ S.H.O.W (Stop Harassment of Women) You Care campaign gains momentum, some who are oblivious to this problem may wonder if sexual harassment of women in public space is such a significant issue in our city while others may ponder if it is a pertinent issue for a reconciliation organization to be concerned with. Harassment in public spaces is a human rights issue because it limits women’s ability to be in public as often or as comfortably as most men. It is an issue prevalent in our city that demeans a portion of our society but an issue that is not taken seriously.
What Constitutes Harassment in Public Spaces?
Harassment in public spaces is any action or comment between strangers that is disrespectful, unwelcome, threatening and is motivated by gender. Harassment ranges from leers, whistles, honks, kissing noises, and non-sexually explicit evaluative comments, to more insulting and threatening behavior like vulgar gestures, sexually charged comments, flashing, and stalking, to illegal actions like public masturbation, sexual touching and assault (Source: Stop Street Harassment). In most cases harassment in public spaces is portrayed as a trivial problem or a joke. Some go to the extent of insisting that men are just being complimentary. Women are resigned to live with such treatment and are forced to believe that it is the norm and should be borne in silence. Further, people tend to blame women for its occurrence based on what they are wearing or what time of day they are in public.
As a university lecturer, I dress conservatively to work. For the past year, I cannot recall a single day when my walk home from work did not include uncomfortable encounters with men on the street who felt the need to make demeaning comments. The perpetrators range from pre-teen school boys to security guards to university students to the well-dressed executive types. It never becomes easy walking past men who get pleasure from making females uncomfortable. I have tried different routes, rushing home before a certain time, but no matter what they are always there. I’ve wondered if it would make a difference if I wore a garbage bag or a hijab?
There are times that I’ve been silent and times I’ve spoken up against harassment. As a bewildered teenager I remember the feeling of nausea after a man licked his hand and touched my bare legs with his saliva dripping hand below my uniform. I stood their stricken with horror as he smiled sickeningly and walked off. On an occasion that I stood up to harassment led to an altercation with eight men (probably executives at a reputable company) in their forties who did not accept that I had a right to my dignity. These and other experiences of lesser and greater magnitude left me in a state of despair until the launch of the S.H.O.W You Care campaign which gave a ray hope.
Men Who Care
Men who care about equality or who care about a mother, sister, daughter, aunt, cousin, girl friend, spouse, or friend should care about harassment in public spaces. Women cannot work on this issue alone and need men’s collaboration. Sri Lanka Unites recognizes the problem of harassment as a pertinent issue in our city and grasp the necessity for men to be part of the process to initiate change in our city.