Making Public Tranaport Safe

Daily FT Editorial

Ninety percent of Sri Lankan women have been subjected to sexual harassment on public buses and trains, according to the findings of a study commissioned by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) Sri Lanka in 2015, underscoring the challenges of getting more women to become part of the economy.

Sexual harassment on public transport is faced by women globally and may occur in varying degrees of physical and verbal abuse, even leading to incidents of rape. It limits the mobility of women and reflects the deeper issues of gender imbalances within societal structures. In addition to violating the fundamental rights and freedom of women and girls – it also contributes towards creating an environment of insecurity, which limits their full participation in public life, employment and education.

Public transportation, being the most economically viable option for the majority of Sri Lankans, can act as a catalyst for development stimulating economic progress.

The report pointed out sexual harassment on public transport contributes to a culture that discriminates women and girls and affects them physically, psychologically and economically. According to the Census on Population and Housing, Sri Lanka’s female labour force participation has decreased from 39.5% in 2006 to 34.7% in 2014. One of the key findings of the study was that 50% of the women surveyed used public transport as a means of travelling to their workplace. Thus, the issue can be derived as a contributory factor to the decline in female labour force participation in Sri Lanka.

There is a distinct disparity in access and usage of public transportation among men and women. Studies show that women depend more on public transport than men, especially when they are part of the lower income strata.

If Sri Lanka is to achieve its economic potential, maximising labour force participation is essential. Taking into consideration the declining female labour force participation, it is important to understand the concerns affecting women. Among the many issues highlighted, sexual harassment in public transport is among the key deterrents that restrict the movement of women for economic opportunities.

A frequent response observed on public transport systems, especially buses, was that victims of sexual harassment chose to remain silent at the moment of harassment and after. As much as 92% of the respondents never sought help from law enforcement when facing sexual harassment in public transport.

Additionally, it was noted that they were not in a practical position to take complaints of sexual harassment to the police at the time of the incident. If incidents continue to take place, the findings show that women and girls attempt to complain to the police through family or friends.

Women and girls are often silent in instances of sexual harassment in public transport because it is considered a ‘normal’ experience of travel. Awareness raising campaigns must be clear on the messaging that sexual harassment is a form of sexism, a criminal offence under the Sri Lankan Penal Code, and that it is the right of the individual to speak out and seek support. Any person, especially women and girls, who are victims of sexual harassment must feel empowered and safe to report a crime to local authorities through established strong response systems.

Plainclothes female police officers travelling on public transport and arresting offenders would also minimise harassment extensively. In fact this is already practiced in Columbia to make public transport safer. Instead of paying lip service to how women are respected in Sri Lankan society, it is time everyone actually addressed this burning issue.