Thursday, 28 August 2014 00:00
The “Wariyapola girl,” as Thilina Amalka has come to be known to the nation, was arrested by Police on Wednesday. Amalka was seen repeatedly slapping a man at the Wariyapola main bus stop, which then went viral, becoming arguably the most-discussed incident in the country. Her actions provoked passionate support as well as censure and brought to focus the burning problem of female harassment in Sri Lanka, attitudes towards it, along with women’s rights.
The logic behind the arrest is sexual harassment, including verbal, is a punishable offence under the Sri Lankan penal code. Yet there are much larger issues at stake here that are not being taken into account. Women, especially girls, are constantly and continuously harassed in Sri Lanka. Even the mere act of walking down the road cannot be done in peace and a whole shelf of books is needed to record the harassment and sometimes violence they are faced with daily in other spheres of their lives.
Impunity given to these actions, at policy making and professional levels, means that the victim is often turned into the perpetrator and the law does not deliver justice as it is meant to. As in the case of the Wariyapola girl, many condemned the actions as excessive but do not take into account the physical and mental pain built up by thousands of women everyday when they are thoughtlessly harassed. Is it so remarkable that a woman can act injudiciously under these circumstances? Just another comment can suddenly become one comment too many.
Harassment has been normalised to the extent that women themselves frown upon standing up for themselves. For the line of “excessive” to be drawn, policymakers have to put in laws that clearly spell out offences and the degree of actions allowed. Such a clear push by lawmakers would not only reduce similar incidents but change social attitudes, resulting in women being protected on all fronts. It would also minimise gender policing, which is an effort by society to push women into stereotypical roles, rather than addressing their problems.
In Sri Lanka rape statistics show the state of women’s rights. Every 90 minutes a woman is raped in Sri Lanka; only 2% of rapists face any legal consequences; 95% of women using public transport experience sexual harassment; Sri Lanka is the fifth worst country in the world for domestic abuse, with numbers rising. So it is clear that the Wariyapola incident is only a symptom of a much larger problem – one that continues to be ignored.
Laws making ‘Eve-teasing,’ as harassment is sometimes referred to, illegal is effective in many nations, including cultural neighbour India. The arrest in Sri Lanka poses a striking contrast to Police in Columbia forming anti-groping squads to monitor public transport. In the town of Bogota alone, two million people using public transport are policed by plainclothes policewomen. Imagine the difference such a measure could make in Sri Lanka?
If women could make complaints on harassment with the confidence that it would be taken up seriously and competently, would Amalka have had to take the law into her own hands? If Sri Lanka’s sexual harassment law was implemented universally and not in special instances as it is now, what a massive change it could make. Surely it is time to follow the law in spirit as well as in deed.