Each year on 25th November, the UN's International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, we're encouraged to take stock of the physical, sexual and psychological violence facing women and girls around the world every day. We're all too aware of the dangers in our own lives, and may well be vocal about them, but in many countries these human rights violations go unreported due to impunity, stigma and shame.
The behaviours women endure are as wide-ranging as the abusers themselves, and stretch from intimate partner violence (including the physical, psychological abuse and rape) to female genital mutilation, trafficking and child marriage. Among the most common experiences reported by women everywhere – as those in Britain are all too aware – is sexual violence and harassment, in the home, on the street, in clubs, on public transport. Everywhere.
A new campaign is shining a light on a country where sexual harassment is rife and yet going almost entirely unreported. In Sri Lanka, a staggering 90% of women have experienced it on public transport but just 4% seek support from the police, according to UN statistics.
The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) has collaborated with Cheer Up Luv, a photojournalism project documenting women's experiences of sexual harassment in public, founded by Eliza Hatch (who worked with Refinery29 and Gina Martin on our #StopSkirtingTheIssue upskirting campaign), to raise awareness and give voice to these women's experiences.
Each day for the next 16 days, dubbed by UN Women as the 16 Days of Activism against gender-based violence (which culminates with Human Rights Day on 10th December), the Cheer Up Luv x UNFPA campaign will release a different woman’s story of sexual harassment on public transport in the south Asian country.
A short introductory documentary to the project, Come Home Safely (below), offers a glimpse into the far-reaching impact of this harassment on women and girls' lives. Research by UNFPA in 2017 found that 44% of women's personal lives were affected by the harassment they'd faced on public transport, 29% said it affected their school performance, while 37% said it impacted their performance at work.
In the film, women share stories of being approached by threatening groups of boys, being followed, being touched and slapped, and having men expose themselves to them. "One thing that everybody told me was not to say anything, and I think that's something that we as a community need to overcome, because we need to say something, or it's never going to change," says one of the women. Indeed, UNFPA believes the issue is underreported in the country.
UNFPA's research found that harassment – and the threat of it – is limiting women's mobility and hence their participation in public life and general wellbeing. A quarter of women surveyed said they were harassed monthly, while for 12% it was a daily occurrence. Some women reported it being so commonplace that they were forced to move elsewhere because there were so few alternative modes of transport.
The other passengers did nothing except glower at me. Even the bus conductor ignored me.
The first account being shared as part of the campaign is from a woman named Shanuki, who recalls sitting on a bus and being approached by a group of four threatening teenage boys. "They saw me seated alone at the back and came towards me," she says. Thinking nothing of it, she ignored them by looking out of the window, but soon they surrounded her.
"One boy held me back by my shoulders and another ran his hand up my school dress, while the other two stood over me," Shanuki explains. "I completely froze and was unable to comprehend what was happening, until the hand started squeezing my upper thigh. I began to struggle, but they only pushed me back further."
Her cries for help made them pull back and move away, but no one came to her aid. "The other passengers did nothing except glower at me. Even the bus conductor ignored me. Just then the bus stopped, and all four boys quickly got out, leaving me in tears. All I could do was sit and cry until the bus arrived at my road." Coming from a "strict household", Shanuki couldn't tell anyone what happened and it was years before she was brave enough to take public transport alone again.
Sometimes it was hard to even process the stories we were hearing.
Eliza Hatch, Cheer Up Luv
"We often hear the conversation of sexual harassment from a Western perspective, so we wanted to shift that and give women in Sri Lanka a platform for their stories to be heard," says 24-year-old Londoner, Hatch, who is behind the project's photography. "The majority of my project, Cheer Up Luv, has been documenting women in London and New York, so it felt necessary to document the same issue from the other side of the world."
Hatch describes the project as "one of the most simultaneously challenging and rewarding campaigns" she's worked on. The team met, photographed and interviewed women on buses, in train stations, markets and busy streets. "Sometimes it was hard to even process the stories we were hearing, until we got back and started piecing the film together," she adds.
"I met so many incredible women over the week we spent in Colombo, and learned so much about their lives, daily struggles, and the society norms that make it hard to speak out. One of the biggest challenges of the trip was getting women to speak on camera about their experiences, because it's a very taboo subject in Sri Lanka, even though it's an issue which is so widely experienced."