Car-free day in Sri Lanka sparks debate over safety for women

Though it may be good for the environment, not having the security of automobiles and public transport has raised fears.

A woman crosses a train track near a railway station during an islandwide railway unions strike in Colombo, Sri Lanka
Cars and trains may not always be reliable for getting around the Sri Lankan capital quickly, but they do afford physical protection [Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters]

When the mayor of Colombo announced that the congested capital of Sri Lanka would go car-free this Sunday to promote a “healthier” lifestyle, she might have expected a few grumbles from petrolheads.

But no one seems to have anticipated the furious backlash from women in the city, who say cars offer them much-needed protection from sexual harassment both outside on the streets and on public transport.

A tweet from a journalist saying she could “barely walk 100 metres without some sick pervert or inbred idiot saying something perverted or stupid” unleashed a torrent of anger from female residents of the city over the plan this week.

Dozens of women backed the journalist, Marianne David, and recounted their own experiences – from being ogled and flashed on the sidewalks, to being groped and witnessing public masturbation in crowded trains and buses.

“Street harassment is kind of getting worse. I can’t walk 10 steps without being stared at or catcalled,” Pabasara Palletanne, a public bank employee, told the Thomson Reuters Foundation on Friday.

‘Patriarchal attitudes’

Responding to the criticism, the office of Colombo Mayor Rosy Senanayake said she was working to address the issue of sexual harassment.

“Clearly it’s something that needs a sustained effort,” she said in an email.

A 2015 survey by the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) found nine out of 10 women and girls had faced sexual harassment on public buses and trains in Sri Lanka.

Misha’ari Weerabangsa, a graduate student, used the term “galling” in reaction to the fact that the car-free idea was spearheaded by two women – the mayor and the Dutch ambassador to Sri Lanka, Joanne Doornewaard.

“They fail to take into consideration the ground realities that are faced by commuters, especially women,” said Weerabangsa, who tweeted a series of incidences of sexual harassment she said she had suffered.

The Dutch embassy did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

But some people on social media responded angrily to David’s tweet, among them a former navy chief who told her to leave the country.

Randima Jayasinghe, a spokesperson for the UNFPA, said such a response highlighted “the patriarchal attitudes prevalent in societies” in Sri Lanka and urged women to report any sexual harassment they experienced.

A 2018 Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of 1,000 women in five of the world’s biggest commuter cities – London, New York, Mexico City, Tokyo and Cairo – found 52 percent cited safety as their top concern while using transport.

The Thomson Reuters Foundation, the charitable arm of Thomson Reuters, covers humanitarian issues, conflicts, land and property rights, modern slavery and human trafficking, gender equality, climate change and resilience.

Source: Reuters