Photo courtesy of Daily Mirror

On November 25, 1960 three sisters, Patria Mercedes Mirabal, María Argentina Minerva Mirabal and Antonia María Teresa Mirabal, were assassinated in the Dominican Republic on the orders of the Dominican ruler Rafael Trujillo. The Mirabel sisters had fought hard to end Trujillo’s dictatorship. Activists for women’s rights have observed a day against violence on the anniversary of the deaths of the three women since 1981. On December 17, 1999, November 25 was designated as the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women by the UN General Assembly.

There have been a lot of politicians all over the world telling us that a nation’s security and economic prosperity are the most important factors in making a country great. Freedom from terrorism and poverty are huge benefits to strive for, and to measure our happiness by. A close third, in the eyes of 20 of us in Colombo, is personal safety – safety from harassment, abuse and violence, which is suffered disproportionately by those identifying as women and girls.

At the beginning of September 2020, a campaign to End Sexual Violence was founded in Sri Lanka. As sexual abuse, including child abuse, rape, assault and harassment are significant community issues, we decided we should create a community awareness campaign.

The focus of the campaign is to ensure that everyone in this society reads and hears the personal stories of victims of sexual violence and abuse so that they cannot dismiss or ignore their damaging effects on their fellow citizens. First person narratives are powerful in expressing human experience in a way that personalises incidents and humanises statistics.

We set up secure email accounts to which those who have experienced Gender Based Violence can send in their accounts of incidents of harassment, violence and abuse that they have directly experienced or witnessed.

In a society where misogyny and disrespect towards women and girls is normalised, many of these incidents occur each day throughout the country. People reporting these incidents are not taken seriously as harassment is often expressed in words and gestures rather than in the form of overt physical attack. Even assault and rape are treated as rare one-off cases rather than seen as part of a systemic problem.

Misogyny is not only directed at girls and women. Transgender people are under particular threat due to police violence, and police have used historical colonial laws to abuse queer men, including transgender men. Heterosexual people would not believe the indignities of forced anal and vaginal checks that are implemented to see if a man has been having sex; of course trans men who haven’t had a phalloplasty have female sexual organs. We can see that many antiquated laws are being used to persecute LGBT people, so it is clear that systemic legal reform is needed.

Transitioning medically is now possible legally and trans people can change their IDs too, but on a micro-level, many Sri Lankans go out of their way to persecute trans people. Identifying as homosexual in this country is still against the law. Awareness of the right to safety and human dignity of vulnerable people who are seen as existing outside the widely accepted narrow gender norms is happening incrementally, and on a macro level.

We created a Facebook Page and Group in which these issues can be publicly discussed, an Instagram page where we post content and commentary that can be shared and a Blog (End Sexual Violence Now) in which the stories of the victims and survivors of violence can be posted publicly, in their own words, and with their identifying details removed for their protection.

Of particular interest to us is the way the complaints regarding these incidents were addressed and handled (or mishandled) by authorities as so few incidents result in a legal charge and many perpetrators continue to offend believing that their offenses will never be prosecuted.

Once we have a range of first person accounts, we will collate and cross reference them and use the content to make specific recommendations for improvement in the reporting and processing of these cases to relevant government officials and those in charge of the Ministries of Justice and Defence (overseeing the Police) and Education (incorporating Women’s and Children’s Affairs).

Attacks on female foreign business owners, tourists and travellers have also drawn attention to the high prevalence of violence and lack of safety felt by women and girls and other people of gendered vulnerability and have had a negative impact on the country’s reputation as a tourist destination.

The lack of informed sex education in the country, the lack of general understanding of the need for consent, the widespread menace of street harassment and body shaming, the casual reduction of women’s personalities, the acceptance of objectification and humorous jokes at the expense of women, and the fear and ignorance directed towards those identifying as non-binary in gender including LGBTQI people add to the social disempowerment of those identifying as female; these aspects will take some time to challenge and change. The current thinking and mindsets of a great proportion of the population, both women and men, must change for positive changes to take place in the way people behave, and for a more inclusive, accepting and safe society to form.

Walking on the streets or travelling on public transport is a daily challenge most women dread. While some women choose not to get involved when they see harassment taking place, there are many of us who oppose that cowardly option and want to do something about it.

Sex education, relationship etiquette, respect and boundaries should first be taught at home. Parents don’t speak openly about sex with their children and that ignorance is what leads to children’s curiosity in exploring via other means, including the Internet with its easy access to pornographic content. Sex education should be taught in schools as a subject, not merely from a biological perspective, but from a social, emotional and relational point of view.

Caryll Tozer, the Founder of Women In Need (WIN) and a founding member of the ESVN campaign, confirms, “Our end goal and mission is that Sri Lanka is a safe place not just for visitors to the country but for our own women as well. We must be a shining example to the region to show that respect for women is fundamental to the national happiness of a nation. Women are the nurturers of those to come.”

Gender Based Violence is such a broad problem and so deeply entrenched in our society that we are aware that the campaign will take several years to really show results. However, all the campaign participants feel encouraged that by doing this work we are assisting to create a brighter future for all citizens of the country in which we live.

The casualness of the everyday harassment women experience shows how normalised this sort of violence has become. The impact on those experiencing these as a series of one-off incidents is cumulative and debilitating.

The following instances were recounted to us via email by a person who did not wish to be identified. She gave permission for us to post her story on our public blog. It takes courage to recall and revisit incidents of violence. Victims are often accused of inventing their stories or exaggerating what they have experienced. Our purpose is not to name and shame. We want to empower victims of violence to tell their stories to raise awareness of the personal damage caused by normalised harassment, in all its forms.

“My first experience of harassment was when I was four years old. A boy who was around 10 came into the girl’s washroom and blocked the door of my cubicle and told me that if I don’t kiss him he won’t let me go. I cried and begged him to go away but he forcibly kissed me on the lips. I had no idea what was happening and was terrified. It’s one of my earliest memories and I still experience agitation at even the slightest form of harassment by men. It has ruined my ability to easily trust and feel secure around men, affecting all my personal relationships.

“Recently, I was walking with my mother around six in the evening. It was still my neighbourhood but it was getting dark, so we were going home when a man on a bike headed towards us. He put his hand out and groped my breast. Then he simply sped away. We saw his face but my mother said he could be connected to the underworld and that the chances of the police catching him were low. She felt we were helpless so she said we shouldn’t go for walks anymore.

“Two years ago, when my sister and I were going home at 4 pm, it suddenly started raining. Since we were close to home we kept walking. A man on a bike came from behind and groped me. We didn’t see him and even if we had, what would those in charge possibly do other than telling us to never leave the house?

“Last year my social media accounts were hacked and the person who did it changed my profile pictures to photos of naked porn stars and accepted friend requests from male strangers, which led to many other men saying all sorts of filth in the most objectifying manner. I felt like a piece of meat waiting at the butcher’s shop to be sliced and given away to those vile monsters.

“These are just the extremes that haunt me every time I even consider going for a walk. Other less obvious harassment that happens on a daily basis include catcalling, following, trying to talk and being stared at by strange men.”