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Sexual Harassment SL : Breaking down the Taboo on talking Sex and Rape

Woman_at_Church_Street,_Bangale

Sri Lanka likes to act like some problems do not exist. But they do. Sexual Harassment in public and within households is one of those “big things” that “lurks unsaid inside” thanks to a Wall of Taboo.

“And the air was full of Thoughts and Things to Say. But at times like these, only the Small Things are ever said. Big Things lurk unsaid inside.” ― Arundhathi Roy.

This is one of those things we shouldn’t talk about, never have and still choose not to. But for how long can society hide behind this facade of happily ever after? Violence is prevalent in all forms within households, be it your mansion in Colombo or anywhere else. In Sri Lanka, Gender Based Violence has become rampant more than ever before, and the situation is only worsening. Violence adds to youth vulnerability on top of poverty, poor educational attainment and even employment. Yet a wall of social taboo prevents society talking about it at large. The problems are hidden safely behind this wall, along with the innocent victims’ agony and despair.

 

The Root Cause:

 

Street harassment is a form of sexual harassment that is inclusive of verbal harassment such as making comments, wolf-whistles, cat-calling and physical harassment such as expressing unwanted gestures like touching, leaning, rubbing, and other actions by strangers in public, including in public transportation. Travelling alone, falling asleep, and failing to protest against sexual advances seem to be the contributory factors leading to violence in public transportation here in Sri Lanka. However, this is simply one aspect to this terrifying phenomenon.

I met him  online, we had an affair, although we never met, we knew everything about each other. Then one day, he proposed to meet at a rest-house past the town. I declined initially, and was swamped with threats, black mails through my social media accounts from people I have never heard of who all had pictures I had shared with him. Afraid that they would leak, I reluctantly agreed to meet, hoping that this nightmare would end……. I nervously walked in to the rest-house and rang his phone. As I heard a phone ring, I turned around and he was definitely not the man I pictured. He was an elderly one, part of an organized group which blackmailed and kidnapped girls for huge ransoms from their families……….”

But this is just one tale of many as Cyber Harassment is becoming harder to track down in our nation. 98% of cyber-crimes are committed for financial benefits, especially trafficking and sexual exploitation of both, women and children. Most people who fall prey to such activities are usually the one’s ignorant. Now who do we blame? It would be out-right hypocritical to blame the innocent girl solely and leave her responsible for her actions if she has never been formally (or informally for that matter) – been educated on what she should do in such a situation.

The golden rule online is to completely avoid contact with unknown individuals on social media. In addition, it is essential to manage privacy settings so that unknown personnel will not be able to find your contact details such as your mobile number and home address.

 

The Big No No!:

 

Physical abuse is that which results in actual physical harm by a person of responsibility, power or trust. Statistics show that among 283 female undergraduates at the University of Colombo in 2010, 36% knew of physical violence against female partners by their boyfriends. And now for what almost every lecture, seminar, workshop I have been to has failed to address; Statutory Rape. In Sri Lanka the legal age of consent for sexual intercourse is 16 years and the legal age for marriage is 18 years. Individuals below the age of 18 cannot get married even with parental consent according to the Sri Lankan domestic law.

Among 71 case studies, 49 reported to be cases of statutory rape (69%) with majority being between 14-15 years of age. (case study on early marriage and statutory rape by Dr Harini Amarasuriya) Now this is where you have to make a choice as an individual and not rely on anyone you trust. Because in almost all statutory rape cases, the perpetrators are KNOWN to the victim. Such include the father, neighbour, uncle, grand-father.

It was not long ago when a 13 year old girl was relating her story while we waited outside school for our transport and with tears rolling down her cheeks she said, “Akki, I don’t know what to do, I don’t want to go home, I can’t tell Ammi(mother) or Thaaththi(father) what Loku Maama (uncle) did to me…..” yes, that is the reality. Adolescents are afraid to consult their parents simply because the environment is not conducive to doing so. Making topics such abuse and rape taboo is not going to help the situation in status quo. Its time to bring in awareness through the educational curriculum in order the help the upcoming generation.

 

The Future:

 

One step forward would be to have more women politically active as seen in the past, as they can help in policy planning to make sure that issues such as discrimination, abuse and family planning are put in high priority for the nation. Over 700 million women alive today have married before the age of 18 and 2.6 billion women and girls are vulnerable to marital rape.Public policy has to address rape within marriage as only 52 countries have criminalized it so far. The education system also has to be more inclusive and encourage women and young girls to pursue higher education, help break gender stereotypes and empower women at all levels to be the best they can be.

Poor girls in Sri Lanka are 2.5 times more likely to marry in childhood as opposed to wealthy ones. This should not be the case and can be overcome by giving them good education and enabling their communities to see what potential they have. Norms and values around gender clearly need to shift if progress towards gender equality is to continue.

All young men and women need to explore their full potential and express themselves without fear of humiliation, stigma or loss of humility and status. This requires close examination and questioning of the subtle ways in which gender identities and barriers are institutionalized within education, the legal system, religious bodies, the family and the broader political and social environment. Apart from policy advocacy, the other ways this issue can be solved is by empowering youth and disseminating knowledge across the island and promoting the need for sex education within the school curriculum to reach students aged 13-18 years, as awareness later on maybe too late.

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