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Ending online harassment

  • Women in Need to launch new campaign

Women In Need is one of Sri Lanka’s leading organisations committed to the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls. For the last 30 years, Women In Need has been fighting for gender equality and standing up for human rights for women and girls by campaigning for a violence-free society.

Being a local, non-profit, and non-governmental organisation dedicated to addressing issues of domestic violence, rape, child abuse, incest, cyber violence, street harassment, and other forms of violence faced by women and girls across Sri Lanka, they have made a reputation for “WINning against violence”. 

Back in 2020, WIN conducted research on the prevalence and impact of cyber harassment of women and girls, but unfortunately due to the pandemic, they could not launch it. They are currently in the process of launching it  in early 2022 with the new project cycle in partnership with Increased Demand and Engagement for Accountability (IDEA) – an US Agency for International Development (USAID)-supported project in Sri Lanka.

Speaking to Attorney-at-Law and Women In Need Legal and Programme Manager Mariam Wadood on what the campaign will entail, she explained that they are working on a social media campaign to draw attention to the issue of cyber harassment that will focus on prevalence and impact, awareness and prevention, and finally, action and response. 

The campaigns will be carried out in all three languages because, as Wadood observed, this issue is not something that is limited to the English-speaking community but is a grave issue faced by many women and girls all over the country. Wadood believes it is important we localise this issue and information regarding it as best as we can.
Talking about their vision for this project, Wadood shared: “Our main goal is to advocate for a specific law on cyber harassment or bring in amendments to the Penal Code to expand the law’s reach. That is the end goal.” She further explained that right now, there are indeed certain laws that people can use against cyber harassment and defamation, but one of the reasons that women don’t like to take the issue to court is because of the public nature of hearings of these very private issues and the stigma surrounding these issues. Wadood believes we need a more progressive and sensitive legal framework and machinery. 

We must understand that sexual harassment is an existing problem aggravated by new technology, and technology-facilitated violence has massive consequences on the victim, given the permanence of the material, the wide circulation of the material, and very often, the anonymity of the perpetrator. 

WIN developed a Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for the Police on cyber harassment, which is currently being used. “With the expert resource team of the CID (Criminal Investigation Department) Cyber Crimes Unit, we were able to train 75 police officers from the Women and Child Bureau; they did a fantastic job, but a lot more training must be done,” added Wadood. Giving us more details about the SOP, she explained that it is a comprehensive document on how complainants must be treated, how complaints must be recorded, how evidence must be collected and stored, etc. and also the legal provisions the Police can make use of in cases of technology-facilitated violence against women and girls.
In the meantime, Wadood stated that it is imperative that we strengthen and sensitise the Police, because whether we take it to a court or not, women must access the Police to report the abuse. This is why it is of the utmost importance that the Police acknowledge the prevalence of this issue, and also be sensitive and quick to take efficient action. 

Wadood informed us that they have met Minister of Sports and Youth Affairs Namal Rajapaksa and Minister of Justice Ali Sabry a few times, and they have been working on a draft amendment to the Penal Code focusing on cyber bullying and revenge porn. She also commented that to her knowledge, there was a cabinet paper on cyber harassment that was from the Ministry of Justice, that they have been researching and working on. “They have wanted us to suggest necessary amendments, and WIN, with a few other civil society actors, have been working on it, but we have to carefully balance the right to privacy and the freedom of speech, both of which are important in a modern democracy.”