They were like sitting ducks, two Indian university girls in a third class compartment of a night train running from Colombo to Batticaloa at around midnight. Neither the family nor the lone older man who occupied the compartment stepped forward to help the girls who were harassed by the eight hooligans at knife point. Luckily they were volunteer workers who knew someone who knew someone else who contacted Batticaloa Government Agent PSM Charles.
“They were making lewd comments and blocking their path at knife point,” said Charles. She was able to contact Sri Lanka Railways and get the train to stop at Maho station, where the perpetrators were taken into custody. The two victims were transferred to a second class compartment under police protection.
Charles said that the girls did not make a complaint as they were to leave the country in a few days and therefore could not attend court proceedings. But this is not an isolated case according to Charles. “Sri Lankan parents are particularly reluctant to drag their children through court proceedings”, she said and explained that women themselves are reluctant to make complaints and that complaints being mandatory for prosecuting such perpetrators hinder meting out justice.
Concurring with the view Police Media Spokesman, DIG Priyantha Jayakody admitted that a complaint being mandatory for the judicial procedure is a drawback. He said that victims are often reluctant to make a complaint, due to cultural constraints.
“Women are reluctant to disclose such harassment to the police and authorities. We can act based on information provided, but to get the judicial process going we need a formal complaint”, said Jayakody.
But he said that in case the victim does not wish to testify in open courts, the proceedings can take place in closed chambers.
He pointed out that the thought that their mothers, wives or daughters could be the next victims never cross the minds of onlookers who remain silent during such a situation. DIG Jayakody said that in such a situation women can call 119, 1919, 1918. In case the victims cannot get through to any of the emergency numbers it is imperative that they keep the next of kin informed. In case of sexual harassment in public transport, victims can call the Transport Commission hotline 011-7 555 555 and Police Children and Women’s Bureau hotline 011- 2 444 444.
Legal Aid Commission, Legal Officer, Piyumi Kumari Samarasinghe pointed out that the crux of the problem is that the Sri Lankan public is not familiar with the law.
“Although it’s punishable under Section 345 of the Penal Code Act, No. 22 of 1995, quite a number of cases go unreported,” said Samarasinghe.
Indian legislation and the case Vishakha vs State of Rajasthan – is taken as precedent in Sri Lankan legislation – where Vishakha and other women’s groups filed Public Interest Litigation against the State of Rajasthan and the Union of India to enforce the fundamental rights of working women under the Indian Constitution. The petition was filed in reaction to the brutal gang rape of social worker Bhanwari Devi in Rajasthan, for intervening to stop a child marriage.
The Sri Lankan jail term for harassment of women is five years. Concurring with Charles’ comments, Samarasinghe pointed out that women are rarely outspoken about sexual harassment in public transport. Bystanders are often reluctant to get involved and if a woman faces such a situation in a bus other passengers and even the conductor and bus drivers don’t wish to get involved as going to the police may result in hours delay.
According to the Legal Aid Commission, Sri Lanka was top-listed on sexual harassment in public transportation in 2012, with approximately 95 per cent of the women in Sri Lanka having experienced sexual harassment in public transportation.
According to a 2012 survey based study conducted by the Legal Aid Commission, titled Athawarayata Pathwanno (The Victimised), only 31 per cent of the victims have any kind of faith in the law and do not believe that they should take the law into their own hands by beating up the perpetrators on the spot. The study goes on to analyze that the low percentage of people who believe that justice will be meted maybe due to the often long drawn out legal proceedings. Over 2,000 respondents believed that the perpetrators should be dealt with on the spot, which the study interprets as loss of faith in the legal system.
While also reiterating the responsibility of public transport authorities, Batticaloa Government Agent PSM Charles emphasized the fact that even local parents should be vigilant when permitting young girls out alone at night. After all the two Indian girls were lucky they had connections. Not all girls are.