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Back to school

10 January 2017 Posted by No Comment

Ten days into 2017… the story around the “mass molestation” at New Year celebrations in Bangalore still reverberating, including disturbing video footage, we wonder at what went into nurturing their sense of entitlement i.e. I am a man, and I have the right to touch, squeeze, grope, grab, pinch, poke, paw, pet, fondle, rub, rub up against, rub myself… or just hit on the head and drag her off like our ancestors of old, or like two guys on the bike in Bangalore.


The Bangalore incident outraged women. The government response that appeared to blame it on “Western” attire, compounded that outrage, and then, as if to firmly establish that we’re in 2017, this outrage turned squarely on #NotAllMen. This # is perceived as an attempt by some men to relinquish responsibility for the incident in Bangalore, and of course the everyday global application of sexism, misogyny, harassment, molestation, rape, and everything sticky that sits in between and runs messily in, through and around our days, as entitled and privileged penises and testicles.  Ask Trump. Ask American voters. They’ll tell you. No one cares. No one really gives a fuck. If we did, perhaps we’d look beyond men and women to what makes one human respect another human.

In Sri Lanka, the experience of women and girls on public transport throws this lack of human dignity and respect into fast relief. Some women and girls are sexually molested to the point that perpetrators somehow free their penises and masturbate till ejaculation. Yes. Women return home with semen stains (not to be mixed up with apocryphal accounts of Seaman Stains, Master Bates and Roger the Cabin Boy, onboard Captain Hogwash’s Bohemian barge). A young woman of Indian persuasion in Wellawatta recounted to us how a man (possibly in his 50s) deposited his seed on her naked arm – she had an aisle seat, and sleeveless top, so fair game? – and then hastily exit an idling bus before it proceeded on its journey, and long before our Indian friend processed the warm sticky mess tickling down to her elbow.

In 2011 the Ministry of Transport reported that 1 in 4 women experienced sexual harassment on public transport. Later that same year, the Legal AID Commission suggested that over 70% of women (15-45) were subject to sexual harassment on public transport.  Finally, evidence. Did anyone give a fuck? Yes. Some gender activists did. NGOs used the data to apply for funding and conducted sporadic bus campaigns. There was a quick flurry of activity; the evidence was just out of the oven, hot-hot. Slogans were written. T-shirts were printed. Buses were boarded. Projects ended. Money dried up. Some young people felt like they had contributed to change. We all went back to not giving a fuck.

In 2015 UNFPA Sri Lanka claimed that number had increased to over 90%:

“In 2015, UNFPA commissioned Sri Lanka’s first national survey on sexual harassment in public transport to understand the current situation of sexual harassment in public transport under the project “On the Way”. Preliminary data suggest that an estimated 90% of women are affected by sexual harassment on public transport. The result of the survey, once released will serve as a first basis to engage in policy consultation with the aim to amend the country’s penal code, section 345 on sexual harassment. The law, as it currently stands does not include sexual harassment on public transport.” – UNFPA

T-shirts and photo-ops aside, dissemination of the report findings appear to have taken a back seat. The business of development appears to care even less than some of us about the everyday harassment women and girls face when they leave for school and work, every morning of every day, and return, every afternoon and evening of every day. Bus-jacksons a.k.a. those who rub against you on public transport, are an integral part of our social fabric.

It is the business of development to pretend they care, to choose fictional characters to represent women, it is what allows for career diplomats to travel around the world. The real women and girls, those who take the bus, or the train, remain forgotten. They have never mattered. Select a handful of young people, send them for trainings/workshops/conferences, photo ops with the #UNGENSEC in #NYC and job done. It’s magic. Women and girls are empowered everywhere.

No one gives a fuck… until a mass molestation incident, or the rape of a little girl… These sell newspapers and drive up views on websites, increase likes on Facebook, and shares on twitter. Where would we humans be without sensationalist media? Imagine real, visible drool hanging from the excited tight clenched jaws and loose jowls of the right wing, left wing, must-sell-wing media.  Rape sells. Watch the news. Rape sells, so sell every ounce of it, and when you’re done selling it, hope and pray for another, soon, so that righteous outrage makes us all feel better while we make some money.

Meanwhile, on Sri Lankan buses and trains, women and girls continue to suffer the indignity of being pawed at, rubbed up against, and told regularly they’re whores. A young Sri Lankan feminist recently featured in Vogue India had this to say when asked to break down the F Word – Feminism.

“The one thing that unites three generations of women in my house—my mother, my sister & me—are safety pins. Even today, we carry them every time we travel in public transport, just like thousands of women in Sri Lanka. The sharp pin pinch is most women’s answer to every man who tries to grope, touch, squeeze, rub & push us uninvited in public transport. So prevalent and commonplace is sexual harassment in public transport here that it has been normalised to a disturbing extent. Statistically, harassment in public transport happens to three out of four women between the ages of 15 to 49, according to the Legal Aid Commission of Sri Lanka & though the culprits can be jailed for five years, not a single ‑offender has been jailed for that long yet. The problem lies with women internalising the problem. It’s the fear of being criticised publicly and being labeled as provocative that keeps women from speaking out. The stigma around sexual violence needs to be defeated. It needs to stop now.”

Most schools opened last week. Some schools open this week. At our team meeting two young women who had just passed out of school, suggested that along with regular school supplies, safety pins, a sharp geometry compass, and a sturdy ballpoint pen are crucial components of every girl’s bus/train arsenal. This is where we live. This space of resigned expectation of the violence – that is to come and forever will be.

How do we move, shift, disrupt this weltanschauung in a society that suggests the sari worn beneath the naval, or a sleeveless sari jacket, are akin to the short skirt, strapless top, bottle of beer, and cigarette hanging from female lips; all symbols of our asking for it culture? But then, by virtue of a vagina, you ask for it in Sri Lanka.


What chances do we have for change, if all agencies supposedly concerned with gender-based violence choose only to play catch-up with adults, and continue to spectacularly fail in introducing age-appropriate approaches to gender and respect in schools – where you also learn 2+2=4, a lesson that stays with you. Every conference on gender, HIV and sexuality since the mid 90s has spoken of the need to teach kids in schools in order to combat ignorance, stigma, discrimination and violence. If we teach the child to respect difference, to accept human being for who they are, then the labels of gay, trans, HIV positive, and woman soon dissipate and we’re left with human.

No one gives a fuck… education reform is decided on by politicians courting voters and development practitioners similarly need long term goals for their careers.

And so, yes, the drunk girl in the short skirt is responsible for the rape, and the teacher who shows her naval, and glimpses of her armpit, is responsible for the semen on her sari.

But just in case you think no one rapes anyone wearing a sari above the naval, or with jacket sleeves down to her polished elbows, this is Sri Lanka.  We don’t care what they wear. We’ll rape them in their school uniform.

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