It’s Time to Talk About Sexual Harassment On Public Transportation

We cannot be idle bystanders, we the public, the people on the bus and train, play a role in creating a safe space.
transport sri lanka women sexual harassment
Photo by Eddy Billard via Unsplash.

Recently the proposed introduction of a car-free day in Colombo, Sri Lanka sparked a debate on women’s safety on public transportation, with women sharing their experiences of being harassed on a daily basis.

“I can barely walk 100 metres without some sick pervert or inbred idiot saying something perverted or stupid to me,” a Sri Lanka journalist tweeted. It is a shockingly common story - 90 percent of women and girls in Sri Lanka have been sexually harassed on buses and trains at least once in their lifetime and over half say they have experienced violence on a regular basis.


New research from Oxfam looks at some of the underlying beliefs and the social norms that drive violence against women, girls, and transgender and gender non-conforming people on public transportation. An entrenched norm is that bystanders should not intervene because it is just not their business. A study from the UN found that 82 percent of bystanders said they rarely intervened when they witnessed abuse.

Why the inaction? Some fear it will make the situation worse. Others say they don’t want to draw attention to themselves. And most alarmingly, many view sexual harassment as a private matter – even when it takes place right in front of you, on the public bus.

There is widespread acceptance about violence being part and parcel of the experience of women, girls, transgender and gender non-conforming people using public transport. A male research participant said, "We’ve created a culture in which we think it’s okay to harass and violate a female’s personal space, her body and right to just be able to live around freely without making her feel uncomfortable about her sexuality. The main reason is a sense of male entitlement that men in Sri Lanka have—the overall objectification of women. A woman is there to be groped and squeezed and pinched and rubbed up against."

Despite the prevalence of the problem, data from the UNFPA shows that just 8 percent of women and girls in Sri Lanka seek help from law enforcement when they are sexually harassed on public transport. Oxfam’s research finds that victim-blaming and sexist attitudes held by the police is a big factor in dissuading survivors and bystanders from coming forward. We were told about an incident in Katunayake where a survivor attempted to file a complaint only to be told, “What’s so surprising about men getting erections when a girl wears clothes like this?”


Oxfam’s research in five Sri Lankan cities showed that women are not only blamed for the harassment itself, but also face backlash for how they react when they are harassed. In 2014, a video clip showing a young woman from Wariyapola confronting her harasser went viral on social media, with many attacking the woman for how she responded rather than denouncing the actual perpetrator. They argued that ideal women do not complain or "cause a scene."


Coping mechanisms used by women who commute. Image from Oxfam

So how do we challenge the status quo?

Raising awareness about the extent of the problem and enacting anti-harassment laws though necessary, are insufficient to end sexual harassment on public transport when social norms continue to legitimize and excuse such behavior.

Currently in Sri Lanka, the message is clear: we expect women to dress decently to avoid harassment, to not travel alone, to not work late. But for the ones doing the harassing, the ones committing the violence, we expect that… boys will be boys.

Sri Lanka needs to consolidate its spectacular success in closing its gender gap by 68%, by creating safe public transportation. This begins with questioning and challenging sexist ideas. It means rejecting the idea that sexual harassment on the bus or train is normal, acceptable or something you just turn away from.

We cannot be idle bystanders, we the public, the people on the bus and train, play a role in creating a safe space.

This is the kind of thinking that led us and our partners to conceptualize the “Not On My Bus” campaign, that launched earlier this year. We aim to encourage everyone to take collective responsibility of and speak up against this culture of acceptance of violence.

So the next time you see sexual harassment on the bus, call it out, create a scene and make it clear that abuse is never acceptable.

Heshani Ranasinghe is Gender Justice Advisor at Oxfam in Sri Lanka. Find out more about the ‘Not On My Bus’ campaign here.