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About that ‘jack’ in the bus

About that ‘jack’ in the bus

15 Feb 2024 | BY Sumudu Chamara

  • Victims and bus operators skeptically welcome Police efforts to address sexual harassment in public transport 
  • Queries issues of proving the offence and practicality due to congestion, etc.  

The arrest spree that started recently targeting those abusing females and children, in public transport, has attracted commendation from the public. Many support the authorities’ efforts aimed at addressing this long-drawn-out social issue, while emphasising the importance of stringent legal action against offenders.

Last week, it was reported that the Police had initiated an islandwide operation to identify and arrest those who abuse females and children in the public transport. The authorities had stated that this operation was launched in the backdrop of increasing complaints against such perpetrators. It was also reported that as part of this operation, Police officers clad in civilian clothes would travel in buses during peak hours, in addition to Police officers in uniform who will be working in public places. Media reports said that on 7 February alone, around 42 persons had been arrested for such offences.

However, as soon as this operation was launched, the people started discussing the pros and cons of this operation, and it is now a national-level topic of discussion.

Harassments against females in public transport

There is no question that passengers, especially females, face various forms of sexual harassment in public transport, and that it is a social issue that has been left unaddressed despite many demands for solutions. From time to time, the authorities have claimed that they would look into this. But, thus far, Sri Lanka has failed to introduce tangible solutions.

In 2015, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) launched Sri Lanka’s first national survey to identify the state and prevalence of sexual harassment in public transport. As per the UNFPA, preliminary data had revealed that 90% of the female respondents had been affected by sexual harassment in buses and trains at least once in their lifetime. The survey consisted of 2,500 females between the ages of 15 and 35 years. Only 4% of them had reported such incidents to the Police. 

“The participants identified sexual harassment in public transport as a major concern. A key conclusion was that high congestion in buses and trains is a contributory factor towards the occurrence of sexual harassment in public transportation. This was made evident by 60% of the sample population indicating unpleasant experiences while travelling in congested buses or trains. Researchers also observed the correlation between incidents of sexual harassment, the travel distance and travel time. According to informants, the most frequently affected category of victims was females who sat near males on long distance buses,” the UNFPA’s assessment of the study findings said.

While the percentage of 90% is alarming and may not resonate with everyone’s experience regarding the matter, it is an undeniable fact that females face various forms of harassment, including sexual harassment, in public transport. The impacts of these experiences often go undiscussed because of several reasons. One reason is that such incidents are generally not considered serious enough to openly discuss and seek legal actions against. At the same time, victim blaming, which is prevalent in Sri Lanka, has discouraged victims from talking about and seeking help regarding such incidents. Another major reason is the inability to prove that certain acts that amount to harassment in public transport were intentional and constitutes what can be legally identified as harassment.

One female who talked about her experience on the social media platform X following the launch of the said programme, said: “This is a good step. I’m a 40-year-old woman who faces such incidents at least two-three times a month on my way to work. I cannot talk about it, firstly because I cannot prove that the offender meant to harass me and secondly because people easily ignore my complaints saying that I am a middle-aged woman who is not sexually attractive and therefore what I faced could be a mere accident.” 

Another female said on Facebook: “While this is a measure that should have been taken a long time ago, the Police cannot be on all buses and trains. So, even if this operation was a genuine attempt to stop harassment against females, how many females would benefit from this is a question.”

The overall public response indicates that while they welcome the authorities’ efforts, there is a considerable doubt about the effectiveness of the operation. While the authorities’ attention is more towards identifying and penalising offenders, some who discussed the matter on social media platforms claimed that the operators of bus and train services should take a certain level of responsibility regarding the safety of the passengers that they transport. 

Practicality and effectiveness of measures

Females, or any passenger for that matter, should feel safe in public transport. This is particularly important in the current socio-economic context, because the public’s ability to afford private or rented transport has dwindled as inflation rose. However, whether the recent programme initiated by the law enforcement authorities constitutes the solution that will ultimately end harassment against females in public transport has emerged as a debatable topic.

These concerns are not about the necessity of a programme of this nature, but about its effectiveness and practicality. Recently, private bus owners pointed out this concern. While they did not necessarily oppose the objective of the said programme, they pointed out valid concerns about its effectiveness. The Lanka Private Bus Owners' Association Chairman Gemunu Wijeratne explained that in a context where there is an issue of overcrowding in the public transport, especially during peak hours, implementing such a programme is unfair to males, because both intentional harassments committed against females and mishaps that are identified as harassments occur during such times. He claimed that even though there are adequate buses to transport passengers only up to the seating capacity, owing to the lack of a methodical bus timetable based on passenger transport requirements, the overcrowding issue persists. Wijeratne also pointed out an unpopular aspect of this issue. That is, although the majority of the passengers that face sexual harassment in public transport are females, males also face various harassments.

Concerns about the effectiveness of this programme have been raised by passengers who were interviewed by the media and those that discussed the matter on social media platforms. Most people acknowledge that females facing various forms of harassment in public transport is an issue that requires effective and stringent action.

“If we are to travel without any (physical) contact with other passengers, allocate more buses for public transport,” one comment read, while another comment said: “Some females complain for even the slightest physical contact despite the bus being filled to the brim and passengers not being able to even breathe properly. If the Police start arresting us every time a hand or a leg touches a female’s body, men will have to stop going to work in the morning and going back home in the evening.” 

“We cannot even stand properly in the bus in the evening, and we have no control over who we touch in such situations. I don’t want to be labelled an abuser merely because my body touched a female’s body,” another comment said.

As was underscored by passengers, while the authorities’ intentions are more than welcome, it is crucial to take into account the practical circumstances in which the country’s public transport operates. The types and intensity of harassment, especially those that can be identified as ‘sexual’, are diverse, and in these cases, in addition to tangible evidence, the victim’s experience plays an important role. If legal action can be taken against a person because another person felt that physical contact with the former was initiated by the former with the intention of harassing, that is a serious situation.

Long-term sustainable solutions

In this context, while the said programme, or at least its objectives are a need of the hour, the authorities must not rely solely on this programme in its current form. It needs to be improved to identify those who actually commit harassment. In addition, it is important to have evidence which go beyond a victim’s statement, and this evidence should be strong enough to initiate legal action against abusers. Otherwise, both alleged victims and alleged perpetrators would be inconvenienced, which is a problem given the state of public transport in Sri Lanka.

One thing that needs to be done by the authorities is emphasising and promoting the importance of having concrete evidence to back an alleged victim’s claims. While deploying Police officers or other authorised officers to monitor harassment against females is important and could be a start, those mechanisms should support and require the collection of evidence as well. We are living in an era of technological advancements, and taking videos, photos, voice recordings or other forms of evidence of such alleged conduct and behaviour should not be an impossible task. Even if it was difficult due to practical reasons, such should be required to avoid the prosecution of the innocent, and more importantly, to identify and penalise actual offenders.

In the long run, this aspect of actions against harassment in public transport could also be extended to making it mandatory for or supporting public transport modes such as buses and trains to install closed circuit television (CCTV) cameras to identify abusers. It can be observed that some private buses have already installed CCTV cameras. However, the authorities should pay attention to ensuring that those cameras and new ones are installed in a manner that helps monitor passengers’ movement in public transport. In a context where the authorities are making efforts to curb crimes through operations such as ‘Yukthiya’ (Justice), such monitoring systems would be useful in finding criminals as well.

However, this programme should not be another Yukthiya. This programme should not result in apprehending suspects without adequate reasons or evidence or taking legal actions that are disproportionate compared to the offences. This is a pressing concern because the Government is trying to gain public trust by initiating programmes aimed at pleasing the public ahead of the upcoming elections.

In addition, raising awareness could help this cause. While the authorities in certain areas have already paid attention to this aspect of stopping harassment in public transport by distributing printed awareness-raising materials, those efforts should extend to more modern means of communication such as social media platforms. The reality is that the public or at least those who habitually harass females in public transport, are less likely to take seriously messages about how unacceptable acts of harassment are. Therefore, the authorities must put more effort into finding ways of conveying convincing messages through these awareness-raising programmes. One option is to inform the public of the maximum punishments that offenders of sexual or other forms of harassment would have to face.

At the end of the day, what the public expects from the authorities are practical measures that are genuine and effective, and in real life reduce harassment against passengers. While females are the main victims of sexual harassment in public transport and therefore more attention has to be paid to females, overall, it is advisable to take measures that protect all persons alike.

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