Dealing With Sexual Harassment

2 Apr

Don’t Stifle Women

Sexual Harassment and How to Deal With It: this ought to be one of the mandatory classes for girls in the school curriculum. Considering how widespread the problem is, why don’t people realize the need to equip young girls for what they have to inevitably face in life? It’s the elephant in the closet that Sri Lankan society largely ignores.

Statistics vary but estimates are that 75 – 80 percent of women can lay claim to some form of sexual harassment. Considering that in Sri Lanka, the vast majority still use public transport, that is a highly underrated figure in my opinion. Almost all women who take the bus on a regular basis have been sexually harassed at one time or another.

I learnt long ago never to get into crowded buses, preferring to wait however long it took for a reasonably uncrowded bus to come by. Otherwise, depending on my financial situation, it is either a three wheeler or the simple expedience of foot locomotion. Getting into a jam packed bus is just asking for trouble. You can’t even tell which hand groped you. And men have the perfect excuse to grind against you – there is no space!
But even in uncrowded buses, danger lurks. Someone brushing against you accidentally, touching you in inappropriate places inadvertently…! If they judge you to be sufficiently green enough, they’ll even actively grope you. In my younger student days, I always avoided the corner seat if I was alone. If a man sat next to me, he could keep elbowing or fingering me while I was too embarrassed and horrified to do anything about it.

Why didn’t I get up at least? Because I was terrified of having to move past him to get out. Supposing he pinched or groped? That’s why the aisle seat – I could at least quickly get up and move away. For several years, that was the sum total of my strategy to protect myself. I didn’t talk to friends about it, I didn’t talk to my parents about it, I talked to no-one about it! While knowing it did happen to other women, I was yet too ashamed to admit to its ever happening to me.

That was until I volunteered at Reach Out, a local Youth NGO that tackles various issues including gender harassment. For the first time in my experience, a group of young women got together to discuss the issue. It was almost therapeutic, knowing that I was not the only victim and it was not my fault. Education has nothing to do with it. No matter how much we know to the contrary, as victims we always feel ashamed; as if the incident was our fault instead of the perpetrator’s.
Why do we feel slutty when men leer at us?
The concept of a woman’s virtue cuts across all classes and creeds of Sri Lanka. Whether Sinhalese, Tamils or Muslims, we have all imbibed this concept of protecting our ‘virtue’ and if anything happens to violate it, we are often too ashamed to own up to it.

I sincerely wish though, that more awareness is carried out by parents and teachers to address the issue amongst adolescents. Almost all of us had been harassed in that volunteer group but the more confident ones who had tales of standing up for themselves/ taking action to relate, had been fortunate enough to have mothers who had told them what to do and how to react. Something that was missing in my own life. And as I discovered over the course of the project that Reach Out undertook to address the issue, something that was missing, though a vital part of their growing-up process, in many girls’ lives.

It was a very educational and enlightening process, working for Reach out’s ‘Man Up’ project! (Man Up – Advocating both guys and girls to be more human, humane and empowered). We started by talking to a lot of people, both males and females about the issue. Nearly everyone agreed that it was a very real problem. Really? So what happens if the average person sees someone else being harassed around here? The general perception among women harassed in public places is that no-one will come to their aid if they ask for help, that they will only bring down unwanted attention and embarrassment upon themselves if they do so. Which is the reason most give for suffering in silence.

We tested it out by enacting various forms of street theater (where we knew we were acting even though the target audiences didn’t), in buses and the Majestic City complex.
A girl would be set up as the harassee, a couple of guys as the harassers and some more of us, pretending to have nothing to do with them, covertly took photographs and observed the situation. The perception that people don’t like to intervene even if they see or sense something happening held true.

The girls in the buses set up as the victim didn’t actually ask for help although quite a few people saw that they were uncomfortable, with the ‘perverts’ antics. Many people became alert and watchful though, with some actively glaring. The glaring became so pronounced in one bus, that one of the ‘perverts’ jumped out, feeling uncomfortable with the censure.

Within Majsetic city though, a tall well built girl who pronounces herself a ‘perv magnet’ (she was enacting a part that day, but it was nothing more than a daily reality for her), walked through the shopping precinct followed by two guys actively heckling and bothering her. She asked for help a couple of times only to be ignored, though one young man did try to intervene and scared the would be perverts away. As she said later of the experience, she had never asked for help from anybody when it happened to her in real life, but while hurt to be ignored when asking for help in that experiment, she also discovered that there were some people out there willing to help. Not everyone was callous or indifferent.

The next step was ‘change.’ If this phenomenon is to be at all curtailed, then the women of Sri Lanka need to empower themselves enough to raise a voice for themselves instead of suffering silently. And the men of Sri Lanka need to know that they can’t get away with behavior like these too easily. Also that simply not harassing a woman on their own is not enough! They also need to stand up and defend those who are being harassed.
We decided to take it to the generation who mattered – the adolescents! Over the course of a month, we covered several schools, both girls and boys. In collaboration with Beyond Borders, another youth NGO, we enacted forum theatres on the issue of gender harassment, at the various schools.

A sub section of the Reach Out team after a school FT performance

Forum theatre, for those who don’t know it is a concept of theatre with audience participation. It specifically evolved to address social issues and to give the society facing those issues an opportunity to come up with solutions to their problems instead of simply preaching to them. The format of a forum theatre is a skit on a social problem that everyone can relate to, with a disastrous ending – the ending that would happen if everything that could go wrong, did go wrong! The audience’s job would then be to avert the disaster by showing how various characters could have acted differently.

In each school, we enacted a short skit of a girl being followed all the way down a road and into a bus by perverts bothering her. She comes across a friend (another girl) whom she asks for help but the friend just tells her to be a little more assertive and rushes off on some errand of her own. Within the bus, she has to stand for awhile, with the perverts practically hanging over her and rubbing against her. The people seated ignore her predicament and after awhile get off the bus, vacating the seats for her and one other pervert. She continues to get harassed on the seat until she gets up to go away at which point she is forced to take their phone numbers with innuendoes of payment available if she complies. The finishing scene shows her utterly devastated and crying after the experience.

It was an enlightening experience, learning what the teenage students thought about the problem and how to solve it. One of the most common misperceptions of society – that the girl’s dress is a lure for such behavior, kept cropping up in the students’ answers as to why it happened. In the first skit which we enacted at a boys’ school, the ‘victim’ was wearing a sleeveless kurta top with jeans. In the next girls’ school, she wore a slim fitting t-shirt with jeans. Not wanting that answer of ‘dress’ to come up anymore, in the next school, she wore a voluminous shalwar kit complete with shawl.

Yet the idea of dress being a magnet for such behaviour kept cropping up. Even from the female students – although they admitted to being harassed even while wearing their completely decent uniforms. Apart from everything else, it shows how deeply ingrained certain perceptions are.

Overall however, the responses from the kids were terrific. When it came time for them to interact, they showed how they would intervene as bystanders and how they would forcefully react, were they the victim. Since it was the more forward ones who were willing to come up on stage, they also showed their less assertive peers, some exemplary behaviour to be exhibited at times like these.
Bus passengers ignoring the victim's predicament in the skit
My own consistent role in these skits was that of the ‘mind my own business’ type of passenger in the bus. I didn’t have much to do and while kids who took over my role showed how I could have been more concerned and assertive, no-one took me to task for it except one young girl in a Muslim girls’ school. She had come up to play the role of another passenger and was taking the bullies to task when she saw me get up to walk off.

“Excuse me? Can’t you see we are having some trouble here? How about lending a helping hand?”
I was startled; but in keeping with my role of the timid person who didn’t want to draw attention to herself, I just said, “Sorry it’s not my problem” and attempted to move on past. Her contemptuous “Very nice of you” followed me out. Had I been a real character I would have felt two inches small but as it was, I couldn’t help smiling!
What a kid, she had elbowed one of the bullies in such a way that she went flying across the stage, she was taking the bus conductor to task for not protecting the victim and in the middle of that, she could take another passenger to task too. The school was so conservative that we were an all female cast that day, males weren’t allowed in. Many of her fellow students admitted to getting harassed in the way the skit highlighted, yet doing nothing about it and here she was, single-handedly showing them how it ought to be done.

It was also heartening to see the gallantry displayed in the boys’ schools. They actively engaged with the bullies as well as intervened as fellow passengers to stand between the victim and her harassers. There is hope for our younger generation yet.

Schoolboy taking the bullies to task

But whether at boys’ or girls’ schools, after each program, the kids rounded up around us to voice their appreciation. They all had faced or seen similar situations but no-one had talked to them about it or advised them on how to act. They were genuinely grateful to Reach Out and Beyond Borders for giving them the space to explore the issue.
Because we are only a small volunteer based NGO, we were limited in our reach and covered only a few schools in Colombo; however as the experience taught us, addressing this issue is a widespread need for all adolescents. They are entering the toughest phase of growing up, when hormones are kicking in and sex changes and feelings of sexuality arise. As if that is not hard enough to deal with, they also face a very high risk of sexual harassment. Predators always hone in on the weaker ones unlikely to stand up for themselves and young schoolgirls who have not been prepared for what’s out there often make the best targets.

Schoolboys pledging to fight harassment

We couldn’t come to all of your schools but you can follow what we do and be in touch with us by following our blog at, liking our Facebook Page – Reach Out, or following us on twitter at @reachoutlk!
Meanwhile, here are the 12 commandments of Self empowerment for a woman as laid down by the founder of Reach Out, Shifani Reffai. Contemplate on them!

Thou shalt not doubt your self-worth based on a man’s treatment of you.

Thou shalt not walk home alone in the street late at night without at least a can of pepper spray or a pocket knife in your handbag.

Thou shalt not foolishly assume that only women in skimpy clothes or of promiscuous behavior get raped.

Thou shalt not look in the mirror and wish you were thinner/fairer/hotter if only to get him to like you.

Thou shalt not remain silent when a stranger in the bus touches you inappropriately.

Thou shalt not second guess your abilities based on the sexist remarks made by people in
your life who try to pass their opinions off as fact.

Thou shalt not put the blame on yourself in any way when he physically abuses you (thou shalt in fact leave promptly and lodge a complaint at the police station).

Thou shalt not fail to recognize that standing up to the bullies you come across will probably save others from becoming victims.

Thou shalt not be outraged at men who look at your cleavage if you wear a top that highlights your cleavage.

Thou shalt not (however) blame a rape victim by accusing her of ‘luring the rapist with her cleavage.’

Thou shalt not ever censor your talents and skills purely on the basis of what society claims that your sex can or can’t do.

Thou shalt not tolerate being forced into doing anything.

Photo Credits: Reach Out & Beyond Borders


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