Does she travel safe? | Sunday Observer

Does she travel safe?

10 March, 2019
The Dome. Courtesy - Colombo Mayor’s Office
The Dome. Courtesy - Colombo Mayor’s Office

Sexual harassment is a grave violation of human rights. However, harassment of women and girls in public transport has become a common incidence in Sri Lankan society. The excuse, be it the perpetrator, the responsible persons of the public transport or the passengers is the crowded conditions of our public transport. But, should it be so, questions an exhibition bringing the tormenting experiences of victims to light, in a bid to break the silence and eliminate sexual harassment of women and girls in public transport.

As seven office trains got one ‘female’ compartments each on Friday, March 8 to mark the International Women’s Day (IWD) on behalf of the 52 percent women population of the country, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) in Sri Lanka, together with the Colombo Municipal Council (CMC), Ministry of Women and Child Affairs, the Ministry of Transport and Civil Aviation, and civil society organisations and activists questioned whether women are safe travelling in public transport.

‘Does She Travel Safe?’ was the theme of the exhibition which was open to the public from March 1 to 8, at the CMC grounds. The exhibition featured real stories of women and girls who had faced sexual harassment in public transport. The stories are harrowing! The trauma of the incidents lasting, as in some cases the specific incidents had taken place when the victims were in their pre-teens or early teens.

They revealed that harassment not only happened in every mode of transport, in the buses, trains and three wheelers which had now become a part of public transport, but that when it happened the girl or the woman became doubly victimised by the actions of the perpetrator as well as the inaction of the fellow passengers and the responsible persons of the mode of transport.


The magnitude of the problem was highlighted by Colombo Mayor, Rosy Senanayake at the opening ceremony. “Sexual harassment in public transport is a priority national issue that needs continuous policy level action,” she noted and stressed the importance of women’s participation at the planning and implementation of development projects to ensure a holistic approach towards creating safe spaces for all women and girls. Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visiting the exhibition as it drew to a close on Friday launched a video that was projected on to the Town Hall building, to encourage the public to speak up, intervene, and be the change against sexual harassment in public transport.

Ritsu Nacken, UNFPA Representative in Sri Lanka at the opening ceremony said, “We strive to see a Sri Lanka where women and men can travel together as equals with no sense of intimidation or harassment.” She acknowledged the Transport Ministry’s decision to have female-only compartments in trains adding that the action, also implemented in other countries, could “serve to generate further awareness on the issue, and will hopefully be a means to a more sustainable solution in the future.”

UNFPA is the lead UN Agency working to address gender-based violence in Sri Lanka.

The photo and video collection was developed as part of a collaboration between UNFPA and ‘Cheer Up Luv’ – an initiative by UK Photographer Eliza Hatch. The public installation was delivered in collaboration with the Rotaract Club.

The stories revealed how sexual harassment has become an accepted norm in Sri Lankan society where women and girls are pressured into submission and silent suffering. They also exposed the society’s response to a girl or a woman who in very rare cases ‘dares’ to stand up and speak against the crime. A significant factor was that a majority of the victims had been silenced by the permissible attitude of the society towards this crime against women, to open up even to their family or friends.


“I was with my uncle and my aunt. As I got into the bus the conductor touched my buttocks. I didn’t know how to react at the time because it was very new to me. I told my uncle what happened as soon as we got in. He said “Oh, we don’t want to create a scene, don’t say anything. I said okay and told my aunt who then said, “You should just have a pin with you to prick anyone who does that, and not say anything.” One thing that everyone told me was not to say anything,” revealed one story. “To this date, my friend doesn’t know what happened to me on the top of her road,” said another.

The stories also ranged from uncalled for attention through catcalls, lewd stares to assault. “While I was walking a tuk-tuk stopped in front of me and the driver leaned out his head to ask for directions to some place I had never heard of. I politely told him that I didn’t know as I was not from the area,” said one victim who revealed how the three wheeler driver then directed lewd remarks at her. “I was disgusted and walked out,” she said. Another disclosed how she got nearly raped by a group of young men in a partly empty bus, where no passengers came to her help.

One woman revealed her story of being assaulted and treated as the perpetrator, by the person who was harassing her. “He started touching me with his elbow. I pushed him with my elbow. Moved away and kept my handbag in between us. He continued to touch me so I pushed him again. He got really angry and stood up and slapped me. There were a lot of people in the bus, but no one did anything (to help me),” she said.

The exhibition was the result of an island-wide study conducted by the UNFPA to determine the prevalence of sexual harassment in public transport within the country which had taken the response of 1,500 women ranging from 15 to 34 years to context. The study had revealed that 90 per cent of women and girls have endured sexual harassment at least once in their lifetime on public transport. However, only 4 per cent of those affected had reported the incident to the police.

“Some are not aware that sexual harassment in public transport is an offence. Some passengers do not know where to get support even if they want to help,” said Ajith Parakum Jayasinghe, a member of the UNFPA Communication Team manning the exhibition’s problem dome and the solution box at CMC grounds. While the problem dome looked at the sexual harassment of girls and women in public transport from various viewpoints, the solution box provided a forum for sharing of ideas, discussion and finding solutions to help eliminate the problem.

The team conducted about five sessions for interested groups such as school children, office workers, bus drivers and conductors and three wheeler drivers, said Jayasinghe. The discussions focused on awareness creation on sexual harassment, identification of the problem and finding solutions.


The exhibition encouraged the victims not to suffer in silence but to SPEAK UP, the witnesses of such incidents to not look away but INTERVENE and those who want to make a difference to start now and BE THE CHANGE.

The exhibition was viewed favourably by those who visited it “This is an issue which needs open discussion. I have been facing harassment since I started travelling alone using public transport since I was about seven years old,” said the 52 year old mother of two girls. However, she said that she doesn’t let her daughters go alone mainly due to the harassment she faced.

She told the Sunday Observer how she had been “ridiculed into silence,” when she dared to speak up against sexual harassment in public transport. “I am usually looked at as ‘abnormal, unusual or a chronic case.’ People ask me, “What happens with just a little touch?” or even the conductors and drivers tell me, “If you don’t want to be touched, use your own transport,” . However, “I won’t keep my mouth shut, I will fight whether it happens to me or someone else,” this courageous mother dared.