It is a positive development that women’s issues have received more than usual attention during this presidential campaign. The issue of menstrual hygiene, for example, is something that has deserved attention for a very long time, and maintaining the focus on this and other problems such as harassment remains of paramount importance.
However, on these issues, it is important to have a discourse that is embedded in empowerment, and not propagating the idea that women are victims who need to be rescued or saved. It is equally important to ensure that rights are approached in a holistic and inclusive manner. For example, statements made that suggest that one presidential candidate will do a better job at protecting women’s rights are disingenuous, because on one hand it is the responsibility of any President to uphold all rights, including those of women. On the other, women’s rights cannot be divided away from other rights, and therefore it is imperative that candidates also commit to upholding human rights and minority rights and civil rights, as these cannot be compartmentalised. Accountability on all rights can be achieved when institutions come together to aid the victim and promote justice. This means that all stakeholders of society, including the judicial system, law enforcement, media, civil society, public officials, and politicians, have to join together to deliver justice. It is essential that these are taken up as threats to all human rights and as an attempt at addressing all injustices. The issue of harassment is one such example.
In December 2015, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) commissioned a national study on sexual harassment against women on public transport in Sri Lanka. The study revealed that 90% of women have been subjected to sexual harassment at least once on public buses and trains.
This is hardly news to women, many of who can recount disturbing examples by the dozen, and it is not limited to transport. Public harassment of women is a serious problem, and one that has seen almost no solutions, despite women making up about 52% of Sri Lanka’s population. The plaster solution often provided is to either blame women, or to provide segregated transport options such as women-only train carriages. Gender segregation is, however, only a short-term solution. It is problematic in that it reinforces gender stereotypes, contributing to the societal causes of sexual violence, and does nothing to hold perpetrators accountable.
At a fundamental level, segregation perpetuates a culture that blames victims and frames all men as threats to women. It’s a knee-jerk response that reinforces outdated power dynamics, and erases the complexity of gender identity. It also does nothing to change behaviour, social attitudes, or improve accountability. Women are having their rights broken every day, but there is no enforcement of law to protect those rights. This is where the problem needs to be fixed.
Society is now acknowledging how factors of race, age, disability, socioeconomic status, sexuality, and gender intersect to influence the everyday lived experiences of people, and there is an urgent need to rethink the approach to safety to reflect this understanding.
Currently, sexual harassment does not significantly influence the safety design of public environments. Instead, safety measures are generalised and gender-blind. But if Sri Lanka is to properly address this widespread issue, there is a need to include diverse voices in the conversation, and conduct more research into how sexual harassment can be eliminated. With no concentrated effort that involves stakeholders, more and more women are choosing to opt out of using public transport or moving around in public space after dark, but this doesn’t solve the problem. It merely becomes yet another issue that is coloured by shades of class and gender. This same problem is seen in all other issues pertaining to human rights. There is a desperate need to not divide rights and try to pigeon hole them to suit one segment, because such efforts simply do not work.
Sri Lanka needs to take steps to stop the harassment of women. But it also needs to work on upholding human rights as a whole. This is one and the same thing. The Government, institutions, civil society, private sector, and other stakeholders need to come together to have a serious dialogue and take measures to push for justice. All people who see their rights threatened deserve to be treated with the same kindness, respect and humanity.