Sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is ubiquitous. Are women safe?

Basically, it should be possible for a young woman, "modestly" clad, to travel independently around a country without abuse. In a country known for its pristine beaches, verdant forests and luscious flora--perhaps, above all, its welcoming locals--it is important to note what goes on beneath the surface, and how it affects all of us.

Ninety per cent experience sexual harassment

It is a shocking statistic, one that many would choose to disbelieve. 90% of Sri Lanka’s women have endured some kind of sexual harassment on public transport, against a global estimate of 1 in 3 women. It is the highest rate in South Asia. Conversely, according to a 2013 UN study just one third of Sri Lankan men admit to having carried out an act of physical or sexual violence against a woman. 3% are arrested.

But statistics often fail where a personal, targeted anecdote will succeed. Statistics are shocking but rarely incite behavioural or ideological changes. The mass incarceration of Muslims in Xinjiang Province is shocking, but persists in part because of deliberate blind-spotting; the number of people reliant on foodbanks in the UK is shocking, but policy changes are not forthcoming.

People become rape apologists when they say things like she should not have worn those clothes, or she was drunk—she was asking for it. These familiar statements are almost never spoken by women, let alone sufferers of abuse. Why? Because shared experience, or, failing that, mutual understanding, leads to solidarity.

A rape apologist changes his tune

We have three levels of kinship: small [intimate—family], medium [associative—community] and large [distant/extensive—race, country, religion]. Statistics appeal to the broadest of social circles, and garner an academic response.

My connection to the UK is vague, so my response to an issue like homelessness in the UK, when presented in terms of statistics, is just so. Narrating isolated incidents is more affective. Localised and personal, a story is more likely to strike an emotional chord; it establishes humanness, but it does not guarantee the element of community. Hearing about the brutal murder of two touring cyclists in Mexico in June last year sent shivers down my spine because I was cycle-touring at the time. If I read about it now, my response would be more distant.

The surest way to generate an emotive reaction is to make something about the inner circle—it is a matter of framing. People care about themselves and their families. Quote stats to Tom, Dick or Harry and you are likely to receive glazed eyes and excuses.

What if was your daughter?
Then I’d kill him.

It happens like this. If a family member is on the line, no counter response is too severe.

Selective offence-taking

Taking something personally (offence) depends on ones investment in an idea. Anyone who has received abuse on the basis of something particular (race, gender, sexuality, disability) shows solidarity with the other members of their clan. They are committed to the idea; it is something integral to their identity. Feminists are committed to the ideal of equality of opportunity among all genders—therefore the abuse of women is offensive. It is an effrontery. Islamophobia offends devout Muslims because they are emotionally committed to the idea of Islam: Allah, Mohammed, the Qu’ran—these are sacrosanct. For trans people, being trans is very important. The oppressed defend each other because of their need for mutual solidarity.

Piquing the interest of straight men in what are perceived to be “women’s issues”—sexual harassment, misogyny, domestic abuse—can be bizarrely challenging. “Causes” like feminism, trans rights, or pro-choice campaigns are of no interest, because they seek to increase representation for members of other clans. Sexual violence statistics are shrugged off because they are just that—statistics. However, ask this man how he would react if it was his sister, or his mother or daughter, and a switch will flick.

Assaults on Sri Lankan women, whether by family members or uniformed officers, are widespread, and should offend us all. Yet somehow they slip off the radar. These women live in a culture which grants immunity to many predatory men. While this is certainly the case in much of the world – rape cases are notoriously unreported, and seldom lead to prosecution – the proportions seem magnified in Sri Lanka.

Infographic containing sexual harassment statistics for Sri Lanka
Image credit: Sri Lanka Brief

Are we really living in paradise?

Sri Lanka is frequently hailed as a slice of heaven, the ‘Wonder of Asia’. This level of praise is to be expected from those who have a vested interest in increasing tourist traffic, i.e., business owners. But bloggers are at it too, lauding Sri Lanka as the perfect destination for young women (and men) to come and reconnect with nature.

But given the statistics, should this not come with a caveat? Leafing through articles dealing specifically with whether or not Sri Lanka is a safe place for solo female travellers, it is deeply surprising to find such consistent disparities between point-blank assertions of paradisal safety and the reality I have come to know.

The increasing role, and importance, of social media reportage

On social media, everyone has a voice. There are democratic platforms where perpetrators of sexual violence can be called out directly by their victims. Solidarity can be established. This is where the truth emerges.

A recent post on the subject, in an expat group on Facebook, has received a lot of attention. Dated 10th June 2019, the original post details a series of incidents of harassment experienced by the poster’s partner, and asks how often the (mostly foreign) female members of the group encounter sexual harassment here in Sri Lanka. Responses almost invariably expressed solidarity. Many were vocal with words of support, or offered their own experiences.

To quote a few:

“I don’t trust men here at all”; “I feel her pain”; “Sri Lanka is the first [on my] list of sexual harassment problems”; “Having travelled extensively and lived in several countries I’ve never experienced this as much as in Sri Lanka. Pls don’t put your head in the sand, it’s a known issue here that needs to be addressed”; “Women should not have to be covered completely to avoid this vulgar stupidity”; “This country is the pits [...] So tired”; “Every day. I can’t even walk to the shop 50 meters away without getting some”; “It’s a daily struggle”; “I only go out with my husband”; “All. The. Fucking. Time”; “It’s every time I visit Sri Lanka, the amount of sexual advances men make is numerous”

and so on. Let it be noted that there are severer denigrations of the culture here which I have elected to omit—likewise, there are women who have not experienced problems. The quoted passages are, in truth, the modal average. They are in the majority.

I was there for 3 months and experienced this on a regular basis... the landlord’s relative would sneak into the house in broad daylight just to “talk to me” and would follow me everywhere. At first id be polite but when I raised my voice and told him to F off he tried to block me with his bike. Not to mention the time he broke into the gates of the house I was staying at in the middle of the night and tried to steal my things off my windowsill/watch me sleep [...] Verbal harassment daily, I couldn’t go to the beach alone...

Reading these drove the point home to me, personally, in a way that an article on a news website does not. It is something to do with being part of an actual, active community. I do not know these people personally, but feel tied to them, experientially. Similarly, hearing the experiences of friends here actualises the problem in a way a statistic does not.

One comment stuck out to me, and resonated with Laura.

After two years there, [I am] living elsewhere now and realizing how much it made an imprint on me. Half a year later and I’m still walking around in a much safer country with my walls up, dressing more conservatively, carrying anger when I don’t need to point it at anyone.

This is a culture which rubs off on people, creating lasting effects on behaviour, openness and personal security. Besides these, I have heard personal accounts of hit-and-run groping, motorbike drivers who swerve towards and grab at someone’s body before speeding off; hotel owners persistently offering massages or requesting to teach the Kama Sutra to a single woman in her bedroom; a jogger being pursued onto the beach by an unknown man; the list goes on.

Selective advertising

Contrary to a position held by many online writers, sexual harassment (from untoward attention to physical assault) is the rule, not the exception. Some argue that ‘dressing modestly helps’, but the evidence also contradicts this. One woman I spoke to has been groped in plain sight, while wearing jeans and a long sleeve top. That modesty helps is a truism, a platitude, and as such is meaningless.

People write with ostensible authority about how safe Sri Lanka is for women after spending a week on the island. It seems pertinent to consider how much one can learn of a country in a week, and how much safety depends on financial insulation. No doubt many of those who can afford to stay in resorts, and pay drivers, have no problems at all. It is those who cannot pay for this treatment who are more vulnerable.

Yes, Sri Lankan bus rides are part of the *authentic experience*, but if that authentic experience involves a man rubbing his groin on your shoulder for two hours, perhaps it is worth foregoing

Reporting sexual harassment

While there are relatively few published accounts, incidents of harassment/abuse concerning foreigners are real, and troubling. What’s more, given their scarcity, it is a duty of those selling the Sri Lankan experience not to gloss over them.

Rarely covered, rarely reported. Why?

Submitting oneself to Sri Lanka’s legal process is an ordeal most tourists and expats (and, I imagine, local women) would rather avoid. The simple act of reporting can be torturous. One woman wrote of her experience reaching out for help from four police officers at the front desk of a police station. They heard her out and laughed, ‘as if I had just told them a joke’. When the tuktuk driver who had attempted to assault her entered the police station demanding she pay him for the journey, the officers told her she would have to ‘stay with them’ if she did not pay her would-be assaulter. ‘This is why the women rarely report incidents to the police.’

Grandiose actions taken by the Sri Lankan authorities do little to solve the real issues. After Dutch tourists were brutally assaulted on Mirissa beach in 2018, the government responded with a sweeping gesture. Much of the beach infrastructure was bulldozed in a morass of short-sighted problem-solving. 100 police officers, 24 Anti-Riot Squad personnel and a water cannon, as well as several teams of Special Task Force personnel, were deployed to oversee the demolition and prevent any protest.

It was like using a sledgehammer to crack a nut: the collateral damage was huge, and unnecessary. Innocent people lost businesses and the town suffered because tourists had nothing to stay for. Such token gestures are big on pomp and circumstance, and little on tackling the cause—a lack of sex education and a society which marginalises (devoices) women.

Why does this continue to happen?

It’s the last thing that this island needs right now is bad press and a few dumb idiots chasing away the few tourists we have.

Sri Lanka is still reeling from a spray of coordinated attacks by religious radicals. As tourist numbers begin, at last, to climb, and business owners put out calls to repopulate their hotels and cafes (“for the good of the country”), it is imperative that the sexual predators of this country do not go unnoticed. For this to happen, duties need to be fulfilled.

Bloggers have a duty to inform incoming tourists of the statistics, as giving out rose tinted glasses to young women on journeys of self-discovery can encourage naivety and feed the opportunism of their would-be antagonists. Residents and tourists alike, male and female, foreign and native, have a duty of care to each other. Foreign offices must acknowledge the prevalence of sexual harassment, as should informative sites like Lonely Planet, Wikitravel and Trip Advisor. These are also truths that should be circulated in expat communities, so that incomers understand the environment they are committing to living in.

But the real onus to change lies with the men who perpetuate a culture which freely oppresses women’s freedoms. This includes the police officers who discredit the testimonies of the women who come to them for support; anyone who witnesses anything and fails to call it out; anyone who does not apply pressure to a brother or friend to change their behaviour. Seen from any angle, the verbal and/or physical harassment of people based on their sex is socially backwards. Quashing it requires a push from all sides.

Tackling the symptoms

Sri Lankan women, at least in the provinces, endure silently, while foreigners lack the wherewithal to penetrate a self-protecting system. Fortunately, the ball is rolling on policymaking, and change is on its way, but campaigns like ‘Not On My Bus’ need nationwide (not just metropolitan) publicity, and legitimacy.

Combating sexual harassment requires a two-pronged approach. Not only is it necessary to give voice to victims—all victims—by inviting claimants to come forward and treating claimants with compassion, not disdain. Perpetrators must be brought to account. Police officers who would rather laugh at victims than help them are guilty and should be reported, because they create an environment in which it is impossible to pursue justice. The man on the bus who, while pretending to be asleep, repeatedly touches the thigh of the woman sitting next to him, is guilty, and should change his behaviour. Colombo’s mayor understands that this is a “national issue”—the country needs to understand this too. Zero tolerance. Don’t be a bystander. #CreateAScene.

Addressing the cause

This is how problems are really solved. Sex education here is basic. A 2013 study by the Family Health Bureau found 50% of young people in Sri Lanka had limited knowledge about sexual reproduction and health. Less than half of girls knew that pregnancy can result from the first sexual intercourse; many across the board failed to answer basic questions about reproductive health. It has been called a ‘sexual emergency’.

According to independent sexual health consultant Peter Gordon, sex(uality) education has a number of clear mutually reinforcing objectives:

  • Increase knowledge and understanding (about sex and the law, the nature of abuse and how to address it);
  • Explore and clarify feelings, values and attitudes (developing self-esteem, pride in one’s body);
  • Develop or reinforce skills (saying “no”, resisting pressure);
  • Promote and sustain risk-reducing behaviour.

Educators are in a position of great power and responsibility when it comes to the development of children’s attitudes to fundamental social issues. Suitably trained, they could make up for lost time, regarding those children who receive no sexual education at home. Furthermore, they can facilitate open and safe discussion spaces, in schools, in which children and young people can come to terms with: a) the attitudes they absorb from the media they subconsciously consume, b) the sexual naivety of their peers, and c) the fact of their own humanness, their history and physiology.

Addressing domestic abuse and sexual violence in a curricular context brings these issues to the surface, and assures would-be victims of the prevalence of the issue—it establishes a nationwide support network. It also informs the would-be perpetrators of the traumas these practices can induce. There is a future in which no part of society is oppressed because of their sex, sexuality or sexual decisions. Informing the national dialogue on these subjects may well be the key to unlocking that future.

 

Further reading:
Facts and Figures: Ending Violence Against Women
CCD removes 21 illegal structures along Mirissa beach
UN Women: Asia and the Pacific

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