Sexual Harassment: An ongoing issue that goes beyond the workforce in Sri Lanka

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          Along with the micro-level issues I have explored in the previous blog posts, sexual harassment is an overarching issue that has unfortunately become commonplace in Sri Lanka. Sexual harassment is prominent in the workforce, but women are also subjected to this poor treatment throughout other domains of life. Since this issue continues to be one of the many human rights violations Sri Lankan women face, it requires advocacy on both a local and global level.  

                   Sexual harassment and violence against women has been an ongoing issue not only at Sri Lanka’s EPZ factories, but throughout other parts of the country as well, such as public transportation. Common forms of sexual harassment and violence that Sri Lankan women experience in the vicinity of factories and on public transportation include touching/ groping, sending/showing pornographic material, verbal abuse, and rape (Perera-Desilva, 2015). Sexual harassment against women has become so commonplace throughout Sri Lanka partially because women and their bodies are objectified due to social stigma. “Pejorative terms and phrases have been coined to label female factory workers as things, such as, ‘Garment baduwa’ (garment object), ‘garment kaalla’ (garment piece), and ‘Kalape kella’ (Zone girl)” (Perera-Desilva, 2015, 67). Furthermore, three-wheeler taxi drivers have been proven to be key figures in this sub-culture because they are involved in helping prostitution rings, finding hotels and guest houses for young couples for sexual activities, and locating places for illegal abortions (Perera-Desilva, 2015). This is an important point because women walking by a three-wheeler parking lot or taking a three-wheeler are subjected to unpleasant sexual remarks and gestures. Three-wheelers are located throughout Sri Lanka and sometimes are the only means of transportation women can utilize after a tiring day of work. This abuse is unfortunately unavoidable and, as a result, women are systematically dehumanized by their male perpetrators.

          In addition to garment workers, nearly 29% of female journalists in Sri Lanka have experienced sexual harassment in the workplace (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). This percentage could easily be a lot higher because many cases of sexual harassment and abuse within the workplace are not reported. Incidents of sexual harassment are usually disregarded due to the lack of support from colleagues, and complaints lodged are also typically ignored by the organization (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). For example, when one of the female victims, a Colombo-based English language journalist reported sexual abuse to a female colleague, she was advised to ignore the incident “for the sake of peace;” her Department Head also asked her to withdraw her complaint and sign a document claiming she had “misunderstood” the situation (Adaderana. Ik, 2015). The lack of a support system from authoritative figures is problematic because if colleagues and organization heads are ignoring sexual harassment allegations, not only do female workers have no one to speak to about their experiences of sexual harassment, but they inevitably feel trapped in this abuse. There is ultimately a power imbalance between female workers and male perpetrators; female workers are inexplicably forced to obey the commands of their sexual aggressors because they are viewed as their “superiors.”

          According to Fokus, a forum for women and development, the kinds of sexual harassment that take place in Sri Lanka are abundant, whether it be in the workplace, the street, or in public transportation. Forms of sexual harassment can range from catcalls on the street to the dangerous practice of asking for sexual favors in return for workplace benefits (Gomez, 2013). Sexual harassment was made a criminal offense in Sri Lanka in 1995. Specifically, section 345 of the Penal Code criminalizes sexual harassment and the offense carries a punishment of up to five years imprisonment if found guilty (Gomez, 2013). However, this law has lost its effectiveness because violence against women has become a widespread behavior in Sri Lanka. In other words, the number of reports incidents are negligible because some female workers may feel embarrassed and will not want to ‘make a scene’; the fear of retaliation and repeated acts of violence also keeps many women silent (Gomez, 2013). Therefore, the most effective and long-lasting solution to the problem would be for both victims and bystanders of the violence to speak up against sexual harassment in order to raise more awareness.

          Women activists have been actively trying get the international community to proactively engage with the state to secure justice for these women who have experienced sexual harassment and abuse (Gomez, 2013). Global UN campaigns have been enacted to end violence against women and girls. These campaigns include the UNite to End Violence Against Women, which focuses on global advocacy, strengthening partnerships and efforts at the national and regional levels, and leading by example through the UN leadership; states are encouraged to enact, strengthen and enforce laws regarding violence against women (United Nations, women watch). Another important campaign is Say No to Violence Against Women (UNIFEM), which is a global effort using the internet to promote advocacy to fight sexual harassment and violence. The movement seeks to make ending violence against women a priority for all governments (United Nations, women watch). These global campaigns are important because not only can they help to deteriorate acts of sexual harassment and violence in Sri Lanka, but they can also make a positive impact in other countries in which sexual harassment and violence remains a prominent issue. Overall, activists play a crucial role in stopping this ongoing issue because remaining silent only condones this type of behavior.

          Lastly, along with these significant campaigns, activists and demonstrators in countries all throughout Asia, including Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan, and Nepal have joined India’s protest movement against sexual violence (Burke, 2013). Despite the united anger against this issue, the social stigma attached to victims that I discussed towards the beginning of this post remains a major problem throughout Asia. However, protesters and activists are not giving up that easily. Specifically, Khushi Kabir, one of the organizers of a “human chain” to protest against violence against women in Dhaka, Bangladesh, said its aim was “to show that people are not going to just let this movement die down” (Burke, 2013). This motivation and determination is key because power is in numbers; the more people who take a stand, the more likely instances of sexual harassment and abuse will receive the attention they deserve. Kabir also addresses that although previous protests on sexual harassment and violence have typically been dominated by women, men are now joining the fight as well. Overall, people from all different parts of society are joining the protests, including lawyers, schoolchildren, teachers, theatre activists and personalities, industrialists, etc. (Burke, 2013). If this grassroots activism continues to expand and grab the attention of more citizens, then victims over time should hopefully be ensured justice and freedom.

References

29% of Sri Lanka female journos sexually harassed at workplace: Report. (2015, March 9). Adaderana.lkhttp://www.adaderana.lk/news/30064/29-of-sri-lanka-female-journos-sexually-harassed-at-work-place-report

Burke, J. (2013, January 4). Rape protests spread beyond India. The Guardian. Retrieved from http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jan/04/rape-protests-spread-beyond-india

Gomez, S. (2013). Violence against women in Sri Lanka. Fokus: Forum for Women and Development. http://www.fokuskvinner.no/en/News/2013/Violence-against-women-in-Sri-Lanka/

Nadeesha, V. N. (2015). Psychological counselling for women garment factory workers of Sri Lanka. Asian Journal of Women’s Studies, 21(1), 65-76. Retrieved from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/pdf/10.1080/12259276.2015.1029231

United Nations Entity for Gender Equality and the Empowerment of Women: Campaigns. (2012). Retrieved from http://endvawnow.org/en/articles/158-campaigns.html  

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