Print Edition - 2014-12-28  |  Free the Words

No laughing matter

  • If women do not appreciate being commented on then that is harassment, no matter the intentions

Dec 27, 2014-

Newspapers these days are filled with reports on sexual harassment and violence against women. They are disheartening to read; it is quite depressing to see our society deteriorating further when it comes to crimes against women. Street harassment, which can range from verbal abuse to flashing and stalking, is a growing problem that needs to be addressed.

Everyday experience

Without any hestitation, I can say that almost all of us women have been violated. Be it eve-teasing and name calling while walking on the streets or being felt up on public transportation. Harassment in public places has become a part of everyday life for us. Sometime back, a woman was thrown out of a moving Banepa-Panauti bus because she did not have any change to give to the conductor. She suffered

multiple injuries and fractures.

Society tells us to ignore the verbal abuse and the stares and avoid trouble and remain silent. We are told to dress conservatively and avoid staying out late at night. At times, we are even told that it’s just a compliment or that boys will be boys. Is there nothing that can be done? When faced with such situations, women feel helpless and often, infuriarated. I make it a point not to remain silent when faced with unwanted advances while travelling on public transportation. I let the person know that I am not comfortable and if that does not work, then I don’t hesitate to voice my concerns. Once a woman speaks up, other passengers joint in to support but not everyone will support you; if they did, women would not be facing harassment.

If women do not appreciate being commented on, then that is harassment, no matter the intentions. Street harassment might seem harmless but it encapsulates a deeper fundamental human rights violation, like the right to a secure environment, right to live with dignity, right to bodily integrity, and right to public places. These are fundamental rights enshrined in our constitution, but still, we women struggle each day to be treated with dignity.  

Weak laws

There are laws in place that penalise harassment, like the Public Offence Act, which makes sexually explicit comments, sexual gestures, and harassment punishable. Women’s police cells have been formed to deal with cases of violence against women. Our laws, however, are weak when it comes to implementation. According to a survey by Action Aid Nepal, Home net and Mahila Adhikar Manch in 2011, out of 100 women who use public transportation on a daily basis, a majority admitted to facing sexual harassment. Incidences of harassment are alarmingly high whereas reported cases are very low. Reported cases in 2012 were just 30. Many cases go unreported because of stigma and victim-shaming. Meera Dhungana of the Forum for Women, Law and Development reports that due to a lack of appropriate laws concerning harassment in public transportation, culprits go unpunished. Victims need to feel safe and comfortable to report cases of harassment. Even if the accused is arrested with sufficient evidence, at times, they are let off by the Chief District Officer due to a lack of criminal history, as required by Section 6 of the Public Offence Act. Thus, the likelihood of offenders being penalised is very low.   

Right to be free

Incidences of harassment can leave deep physiological impacts on victims. According to the Women’s Center at Northwestern University in the US, victims suffer from depression, anxiety, low confidence, and stress in personal relationships. It is important to take street harassment seriously and put an end to it, as such incidences may restrict victims’ free movement and their peace of mind.

Gender discrimination lies at the heart of this problem. One cannot advocate for equality unless street harassment is taken as a serious threat to women and society at large. The problem resides in the sense of entitlement to a women’s body. It’s assumed that women should not object to others admiring or scrutinising their body parts; that men get to decide what women should wear and voice their approval or disapproval. What society needs to understand is that if women don’t appreciate it then its harassment and it’s a criminal offence. It is not something to joke about or laugh at.

It is about women’s right to live with dignity; to being treated as a human being. It’s about having the freedom to walk fearlessly in a dark alley in the silence of the night. It’s about the right to wear what I please without the fear of being touched; it’s about the freedom to live life without fear. But we women are forced to live fearful of harassment, rape and discrimination. We don’t feel safe, be it at home, around relatives, in schools, at workplaces, on the streets, or a bus. Unless all of us, men and women, decide to do to change this, women cannot live with dignity.


- Bhattarai is pursuing BA.LLB (hons) at NALSAR University of Law, Hyderabad, India

Published: 28-12-2014 10:09

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