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Unravelling the complex reality of sexual harassment

By Sumudu Chamara

 

Sri Lanka is a country that values its traditions and cultures, most of which are based on the Buddhist philosophy, and being sensitive towards others’ struggles and respecting others are inherent parts of that tradition and culture. Regardless of differences in religious beliefs, any person who has even the slightest regard for another person’s wellbeing understands that consent and respect plays a huge role in any form of connection between two parties.

In a startling revelation, it was recently reported that a female journalist had alleged that she was subjected to sexual harassment at a media institution. Several social media posts that followed suggested that that was not a solitary incident and that there are more current or former female journalists/employees of media institutions who had faced similar incidents at their workplace.

Various forms of harassments including sexual harassment always existed, even though it was quite recently that people started talking about sexual harassment openly, especially after social reforms that encouraged victims of sexual harassment to come forward and gave the message that having faced such incidents is not their fault. The most recent and most influential movement is the #Me Too movement.

 

#MeToo in Sri Lankan media

However, like most countries, Sri Lanka also shows certain lethargy when it comes to sexual harassment incidents, and activists claim that the existing legal framework regarding the same also has loopholes which sometimes allow abusers to get away with what they did without having to face the consequences. Also, other reasons such as the lack of strong evidence and the lack of official complaints as well as circumstantial reasons also contribute to this situation, according to some who have been vocal about harassment incidents. To make matters worse, according to certain media reports, in some instances, even though cases were filed regarding incidents of sexual harassment, there is a very low conviction rate. The same situation applies to child abuse cases – despite thousands of cases, the abusers, for one reason or another, get away with what they did.

In response to the said allegations, Cabinet Spokesperson and Mass Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella recently told the media that even though he was not aware of the said incident, the Mass Media Ministry would not hesitate to take appropriate action according to the country’s law in the event the said incident was reported. Furthermore, he stated that an official complaint had not been filed in that connection, adding that upon receiving such a complaint, necessary steps can be taken.

However, as The Morning reported on 23 June, it is learnt that the Ministry was to look into the said allegation and also reach out to female journalists who have raised similar allegations under a #MeToo campaign on Twitter, where several female journalists have come forward recently. They had stated that they have been harassed by male employees in media institutions.

The Minister made these remarks when the matter was raised at the weekly cabinet media briefing held on 22 June, where a journalist raised the matter.

Some media outlets also reported that Rambukwella had issued orders for the Government Information Department Director General to launch an investigation into the allegations levelled on social media platforms.

In addition, the Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka also expressed solidarity with Sri Lankan journalists who had faced sexual harassment at their workplaces. They urged that media institutions should swiftly investigate these allegations, and should take necessary steps to prevent the recurrence of similar incidents. The Association also noted that as a collective, they consider it a responsibility to see to it that their work spaces make all their colleagues feel safe and equal.

Similar incidents of workplace sexual harassment that took place in Sri Lanka gained international attention recently. They were reported by several news outlets including prominent news website Al Jazeera, which said in its heading that Sri Lanka’s belated #MeToo movement has started from newsrooms. The article mentioned not one but several tweets by several persons who said that they had faced similar incidents. Some of them had taken place at media institutions.

 

The #MeToo movement

The #MeToo hashtag was first used in 2006 by US-based advocate for women’s rights, Tarana Burke. Originally, this movement was meant to empower women who had faced sexual harassment by encouraging them to speak openly about the harassments they had faced.

Later, in 2017, the #MeToo phrase was reintroduced by actress Alyssa Milano in a bid to encourage women and men to share their stories of sexual harassment, and it encouraged a large number of people to openly share their experiences. This movement was more prevalent and active on social media platforms, begetting a worldwide social media movement.

Reintroducing this phrase and igniting this movement was prompted by certain incidents involving convicted sex offender and former film producer Harvey Weinstein. Some of these incidents were reported by The New York Times and The New Yorker, and several persons, including actresses, came forward levelling allegations about the sexual harassment incidents Weinstein was accused of. Even though he issued an apology acknowledging that he had “caused a lot of pain”, the allegations against him were severe, and according to media reports, those incidents had continued for decades.

In October 2017, it was reported that Weinstein was fired by the board of his company with immediate effect, which was said to be a decision based on new information about misconduct. In the same month, The New Yorker magazine published allegations levelled by 13 more women, who accused him of rape. In February 2020, a jury that considered the allegations against Weinstein convicted him of two criminal charges, i.e. one count of criminal sexual assault in the first degree and one count of rape in the third degree. Subsequently, he was sentenced to 23 years in jail.

According to reports, by 2019, the #MeToo (phrase along with hashtag) has been used more than 19 million times on Twitter. The same reports claimed that the phrase had an average of 55,319 uses per day.

Twitter was in fact the most prominent social media platform on which the #MeToo movement became popular, and three topics were more prevalent than others. They were users sharing personal stories of sexual harassment, users discussing the entertainment industry or celebrities in their tweets, and users discussing national politics or politicians. According to nonpartisan think tank, the Pew Research Centre, in the period between 15 October 2017 and 30 September 2018, some 15% of tweets across this specific time period had mentioned celebrities or the entertainment industry more broadly, while 14% had referenced personal stories or narratives. A smaller share of these tweets, i.e. 7%, had mentioned politics or specific politicians.

This movement has spread across a wide range of countries. The same reports said that #MeToo tweets (71%) over this high usage time period were written in English and that the movement had sparked social media interest across the globe, and the analysis shows that 29% of the #MeToo tweets during the period were written in other languages. Among those languages were Afrikaans (7%), Somali (4%), and Spanish (3%), which made up the largest shares of the non-English tweets mentioning the hashtag over this time period.

The Pew Research Centre also said that it was common for social media users in the US to see content about sexual harassment or assault, adding that roughly two-thirds (65%) of US adults who use social media had said that at least some of the content they see on these platforms pertains to sexual harassment or assault. This includes 29% who say that a great deal of what they see on social media is focused on this issue, according to newly released data from a Pew Research Centre survey.

“It is common for social media users from various demographic groups to encounter these types of posts; for example, men are as likely as women to report seeing at least some content related to sexual harassment or assault while using social media,” it added.

It also said: “In the immediate aftermath of prominent sexual harassment allegations in 2017, some members of the Congress addressed the issue on their official Facebook pages – but there was a large gender gap in doing so. More than four in 10 members of Congress (44%) mentioned sexual misconduct in at least one post on their official Facebook accounts between 1 October and 30 December 2017, according to an analysis by the said research centre. Across both political parties, female legislators were far more likely than their male counterparts to raise the issue in their posts.”

There is, however, a flipside to the #MeToo movement, or the fundamental values on which it is based. As a significant portion of those revealing their experiences about sexual harassment are women and the majority of those being accused of sexually abusing people are men, there is a growing concern about the men who have faced sexual harassment by women and also about men fearing to associate with women in more private environments. There are also a large number of incidents where men were falsely accused of harassing women sexually, and received inadequate support, due to the mere fact that they were men and were automatically looked at as abusers. According to foreign media reports, such incidents have been reported in many parts of the world.

Moreover, some researchers claim that men’s stories of being sexually harassed were not equally recognised or taken action against.

Furthermore, some researchers say that around 57% of US adults were equally concerned for young women and the harassment they could face as they were for young men and the false allegations they could face.

There are also media reports that claim that upwards of 60% of men are afraid to mentor women at work, fearing as to what would happen if they meet them privately, without the presence of any third party. Some researchers have also found that the majority of respondents, both male and female, felt that the #MeToo movement has made it harder for men to know how to interact with women in the workplace.

Also, this situation has affected the healthy discussions taking place about gender equality and supporting victims of harassment, especially in the US and Europe.

Further, the suspension of the presumption of innocence and trial by social media or the court of public opinion impacts due process-related rights to a fair trial that any accused party is entitled to.

Sexual harassment, or harassment in general, is not at all a new development and it always existed. However, as such incidents continued to grow and plague the society that we live in, and people, especially the survivors of such incidents, started taking a stand for the injustices they had to go through, and demanded that the rest of the society also join their struggle, because at the end of the day, almost any person can be a victim of harassment regardless of their gender.

The #MeToo movement is a result of their struggle against the injustices they faced, and is perhaps the most famous initiative that encourages survivors to come forth. However, times change, and people change, and so do the values we once held in high regard, and it is new initiatives such as the #MeToo movement that bring about long-overdue changes in new ways, in a manner the modern world understands.

At the end of the day, any person can be a victim of sexual harassment, and raising your voice and helping others to demand justice is a responsibility we all share as a society.