In 1931, Sri Lanka was one of the first among all Asian countries to give women equal voting rights, setting a precedent for equal and fair treatment of women. In 1960, Sri Lanka gave the world its first ever female Prime Minister in the person of Sirimavo Bandaranaike. But since then, through the past decades leading to the present, the way we treat the women in our society has not progressed. In fact it has regressed to such a level that in November 2011, a survey conducted by Legal Aid Commission (LAC) concluded that more than 70% of women between the ages of 15 and 45 are harassed in public transport. If such is the level of mistreatment in public, one can only imagine how much worse it could be behind closed doors.
How did we go from being exemplary in our empowering of women into a nation and society where women cannot leave the house after dark, or travel in buses without being groped or feeling violated? The problem here is clear. We are not constitutionally or legally against women. Our constitution allows equal rights and our laws offer fair treatment to women. In fact, we have laws that criminalize harassment of women as an offence punishable by 5 years in prison. So this is not a problem, where we stand back and let the politicians and policy makers handle it. No. This is a problem which can only be resolved by public action and proper law enforcement.
Sri Lanka Unites, as a youth movement for hope and reconciliation has a mandate, which is clearly outlined in its vision statement - "to unite the youth of all ethnic and religious groups across Sri Lanka in a movement that promotes reconciliation, creating a peaceful and prosperous nation for future generations”. In line with this vision, Sri Lanka Unites has organized many events in the past such as Future Leaders’ Conference, and continues to do so.
In mid 2012 a conversation started amongst the core team of SLU about the harassment women face in Sri Lanka. Though initially started as a conversation, within a matter of few weeks it evolved into a campaign against harassment of women in public places. Dubbed as “SHOW You Care” (SHOW=Stop Harassment Of Women), this campaign soon took shape as a large scale awareness effort with over 300 students and volunteers boarding buses from the 25th to the 29th of June, speaking against acts of harassment, emphasizing the law that exists against it, pasting stickers that created awareness and distributing awareness cards amongst the women in the bus. As a result nearly 35,000 commuters were reached with the message in 1,228 buses in all main bus routes within Colombo.
The response from the people who witnessed this campaign was positive and encouraging. It was a very unique effort, and many commended it because it is very rarely that you see youth so passionately standing up against harassment. The women in the buses felt empowered by the mere fact that there were at least some who would stand up and speak on their behalf, while the men in the bus felt challenged to do the same. Even many of the bus drivers and conductors who had witnessed acts of harassment and felt powerless to do anything about it, welcomed this effort. In fact, some were even surprised to know that there were in fact, laws against the harassment of women in public, and felt empowered by that knowledge.
And now, plans are being drawn at Sri Lanka Unites to make the campaign into a full-fletched island-wide initiative to rid Sri Lanka of the evil of harassment completely. But can a movement like Sri Lanka Unites, which is after all a civil movement, really put an end to harassment? Can it even dare to dream of doing it, for after all it is a pretty big issue? These are some questions that arise in response to the rather bold initiative of Sri Lanka Unites. And it is only right that such questions arise, for Sri Lanka Unites, despite its island-wide network of nearly 100 schools, cannot really put an end to harassment all on its own. This is why SHOW You Care is an initiative, just a beginning to something greater. People coming together and joining forces against this issue is the only way change is possible. Sri Lanka Unites simply plays the role of middleman in uniting the powerful potential of people to make change, and resonating that change throughout the island.
In line with this vision, Sri Lanka Unites also hosted an event dubbed “SHOWDOWN” on the 20th of October, 2012 in order to bring together those interested in bringing this issue to an end, to pledge to continue its efforts in eliminating harassment from Sri Lanka and to reaffirm this commitment by passing on the baton to the Sri Lanka Unites chapters of Kandy to carry out a similar campaign. This was the beginning of an island-wide effort in ending harassment, with special focus on harassment in public spaces.
On the 30th of November, 2012 the Legal Aid Commission Chairman S. S. Wijeratne made the revelation that Sri Lanka tops the South Asian region on women being sexual harassed in public transport. This revelation only emphasizes the need for an organic effort like SHOW You Care. This year the SHOW You Care team plans on carrying out 3 more bus campaigns, and to also partner with other organic efforts in combating the menace of harassment. Another plan of the team is to compile some feasible policy suggestions and lobby for proper implementation of the already prevailing laws against the harassment of women.
The harassment of women is an issue that cries for attention, and many just turn a blind eye to it. Some even go so far as to defend the harasser, claiming that it is the fault of the woman for provoking the deed. But with properly focused civil action and proper implementation of the law, mindsets can be changed and this issue can be brought to bay and completely purged from society. It is the moral duty and civil responsibility of everyone to protect the rights of others; by doing so you reaffirm your own rights too. So let’s unite in putting an end to harassment, and let’s make Sri Lanka a safe place for women - for OUR women.