Sexual harassment rife on Sri Lankan public transport

UN study says nine out of 10 women affected but most are too afraid to speak out
Sexual harassment rife on Sri Lankan public transport

Sri Lankan passengers board a government bus in Colombo on Dec. 2, 2016. According to a U.N. report 90 percent of women and girls have been subjected to sexual harassment on the island nation's public buses and trains. (Photo by Lakruwan Wanniarachchi/AFP)

The vast majority of women using public transport in Sri Lanka are subjected to sexual harassment but few of them make complaints to police, according to a United Nations report.

A study by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found that 90 percent of women have been subjected to sexual harassment on public buses and trains on the island nation but only 4 percent have asked for help from police.

The study released in February found that 54 percent of the respondents said they have changed their behavior due incidents of sexual harassment, altering their routes, times of travel and how they dress.

"The focus groups talked about their unwillingness to risk causing conflict and fear of drawing attention to themselves and it must be noted that this behavior has created a positive environment for the perpetrator to continue and repeat the action," said Sharika Cooray, a UNFPA analyst.

Iroshani, from Wennappuwa, who only wanted to give her first name, said she suffered sexual harassment taking a bus home from the Katunayake garment factory where she works. A man repeatedly asked her to watch a video game on his mobile phone.

However, it was a pornographic video. "The bus was not packed and no one seemed to notice these sexual videos so they said nothing and I was afraid to shout," said Iroshani.

"Many women garment workers have been harassed at least once on a public bus or train. Most of the time it happens during the day. We have arranged private buses so we can avoid such incidents," she said.

While sexual harassment in Sri Lanka is a criminal offence, there is little awareness among women about their rights. Cooray from the UNFPA says this needs to change.

"Women need to be empowered to speak out when being harassed and they need to understand it is a violation of their rights and that the perpetrators can be held accountable," said Cooray.

According to the Sri Lanka Constitution, discriminating against a person based on his or her gender is a violation of their fundamental right to equality. Since Sri Lanka's independence in 1948, female representation at national level has never exceeded 6.5 percent. Female representation at the provincial and local government levels is smaller still.

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