About 90 percent of females in Sri Lanka have endured sexual harassment on public transport
at least once in their lifetime, but only 4 percent of victims report this to the police, according to a new U.N. study. To combat this scourge, and encourage more women and girls to speak up, the United Nations Population Fund
(UNFPA) recently launched an eight-day exhibition in Colombo to raise awareness about the topic. This needs to be made a top priority and demands policy-level action from the government, said Rosy Senanayake
, mayor of the Colombo municipal council. "It is important that women are part of the planning and implementation of development projects to ensure a holistic approach towards making Colombo
a safer space for all women and girls," she said on March 1 while addressing attendees at the exhibition titled, "Does She Travel Safe?" "All women should be empowered to address the issues to end harassment," she added. The UNFPA and "Cheer Up Luv" — an initiative by British photographer Eliza Hatch — organized the exhibition, which has been opening its doors from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Colombo Town Hall Grounds. The UNFPA, in partnership with civil society organizations and activists, also runs "awareness sessions" for bus conductors, bus drivers, students and other members of the public. Those who show up get to hear real stories from victims. One young woman recalled how a man sat next to her on a bus one day and started firing questions at her, as he slowly inched his way closer. "He was trying to get closer to touch me. I knew he was doing it on purpose. I told him to take his hand off me, and he did. Then he fell asleep and leaned on my shoulder. I told him to move but he didn't," said the woman, who declined to give her name. "Since it was a nine-hour journey, I asked the conductor to move him to another seat. The conductor said it was a public bus and that if I wanted to travel in comfort, I should use my own vehicle." Another victim called Shalinie recounted a similar experience of a man pretending to sleep beside her on a bus as he secretly stroked her thigh. "That wasn't the first time something like that happened," she said. The UNFPA has been running similar awareness programs in India, Japan and other Asian countries, said Ritsu Nacken, the agency's local representative in Sri Lanka. "While we strive to see a Sri Lanka where women and men can travel together as equals, with no sense of intimidation or harassment, we acknowledge the Ministry of Transport's recent decision to have female-only compartments in trains," she said. Harshani Buddiny, an activist from Colombo, said many girls have been forced to change their traveling routes, clothing and make-up to avoid being molested on the way to work or while taking a bus somewhere.
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"Sexual harassment is a criminal offense, but there is still not enough awareness among women about their rights," said Buddiny. She urged victims to try to obtain video or photographic evidence and note the bus route, bus number and where the incident happened. "Every women has the right to lodge a complaint at their nearest police station," she added.