Know Your Law: Sexual Harassment Should Not Go Unreported

“Sexual harassment can take many different forms from catcalls on the street, to demands for sexual favours in return for benefits or entitlements at the workplace to harassment in public transport. It can therefore take place in the street, in the workplace, in universities and in public transport. It is so pervasive in the context of Sri Lanka that many of us are conditioned from childhood to accept sexual harassment as a way of life and not to question it.” (Shyamala Gomez – Violence Against Women)

Sri Lanka is a country where sexual harassment happens on a daily basis. From ‘simple’ incidents in public transportation to the recent incident of ‘ragging’ at University of Peradeniya, sexually harassed victims emerge into the society. In proportion to the unreported cases, the social vulnerability increases while making the community harmful and unsafe. Therefore it is a social duty to stand against sexual harassment.

What is Sexual Harassment?

Sexual harassment is defined as unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, and other verbal or physical conduct of a sexual nature,  by the Sexual Assault Prevention and Awareness Center of University of Michigan:

  • The conduct is made as a term or condition of an individual’s employment, education or living environment.
  • The acceptance or refusal of such conduct is used as the basis or a factor in decisions affecting an individual’s employment, education or living environment.
  • The conduct unreasonably impacts an individual’s employment or academic performance, or creates an intimidating, hostile or offensive environment for that individual’s employment, education or living environment.

Although the perpetrator may view such acts as complimentary, harmless or as a flattering joke, if the act is unwelcome, humiliating, disgusting, revolting and repulsive to the recipient, it is ] sexual harassment. Sexual harassment can occur in private or public life, between family and friends or in  the workplace, public places and transportation. Both men and women can be perpetrators and victims.

Types of Sexual Harassment

Any kind of physical, verbal or nonverbal  conduct of sexual nature is considered as sexual harassment and it varies from showing pornographic materials, circulation of obscene visuals and emails and comments that make the person who hears uncomfortable. The American Psychological Association categorises sexual harassment as:

  1. Gender Harassment: Generalized sexist statements and behaviour that convey insulting or degrading attitudes about a person’s gender. Examples include insulting remarks, offensive graffiti, obscene jokes or humor about sex or women in general.
  2. Seductive Behaviour: Unwanted, inappropriate and offensive sexual advances. Examples include repeated unwanted sexual invitations, insistent requests for dinner, drinks or dates, persistent letters, phone calls and other invitations.
  3. Sexual Bribery: Solicitation of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by promise of reward; the proposition may be either overt or subtle. (quid-pro-quo / something for something harassment)
  4. Sexual Coercion: Coercion of sexual activity or other sex-linked behavior by threat of punishment; examples include negative performance evaluations, withholding of promotions, threat of termination.
  5. Sexual Imposition: Gross sexual imposition (such as forceful touching, feeling, grabbing) or sexual assault.

Of these five types of behavior, gender harassment is by far the most common, followed by seductive behavior. The “classic” forms of sexual harassment (bribery and coercion) are in fact relatively uncommon, while other forms of sexual imposition happen more frequently than most people think. Recent court decisions have also found that certain types of offensive visual displays in the workplace, such as pornography, can be considered sexual harassment.

Myths and Facts

Texas Women’s University  Counselling  Centre has identified these factors as the misconceptions built upon sexual harassment.

MYTH: Sexual harassment is rare. 
FACT: Sexual harassment is extremely widespread. It touches the lives of 40 to 60 percent of working women, and similar proportions of female students in colleges and universities.

MYTH: The seriousness of sexual harassment has been exaggerated; most so-called harassment is really trivial and harmless flirtation. 
FACT: Sexual harassment can be devastating. Studies indicate that most harassment has nothing to do with “flirtation: or sincere sexual or social interest. Rather, it is offensive, often frightening and insulting to women. Research shows that women are often forced to leave school or jobs to avoid harassment; may experiences serious psychological and health-related problems.

MYTH: Many women make up and report stories of sexual harassment to get back at their employers or others who have angered them. 
FACT: Research shows that less than one percent of complaints are false. Women rarely file complaints are false. Women rarely file complaints even when they are justified in doing so.

MYTH: Women who are sexually harassed generally provoke harassment by the way they look, dress and behave. 
FACT: Harassment does not occur because women dress provocatively or initiate sexual activity in the hope of getting promoted and advancing their careers. Studies have found that victims of sexual harassment vary in physical appearance, type of dress, age, and behavior. The only thing they have in common is that over 99% of them are female.

MYTH: If you ignore harassment, it will go away. 
FACT: It will not. Research has shown that simply ignoring the behavior is ineffective; harassers generally will not stop on their own. Ignoring such behavior may even be seen as agreement or encouragement.


The Stop Violence Against Women website (STOPVAW), a project of The Advocates for Human Rights has identified  that  sexual harassment affects the victim physically, mentally, financially and it also has global costs! 

The recipient may face psychological effects such as depression, anxiety, shock, denial, anger, fear, frustration, irritability, insecurity, embarrassment, feelings of betrayal, confusion, feelings of being powerless, shame, self-consciousness, low self-esteem, guilt, self-blame and isolation. 

Physically it may cause headaches, lethargy, gastrointestinal distress, dermatological reactions, weight fluctuations, sleep disturbances, nightmares, phobias, panic, reactions and sexual problems.

There is decreased work performance as the victim focuses on dealing with harassment; due to illness from the stress or increased absenteeism to avoid harassment, the person ends up with sick leave without pay; sexual harassment can end in termination due to retaliation from the harasser or due to decreased work performance resulting from harassment; and the cost to relocate to another city or find another job, loss of job references, or loss of career will financially affect the victim, which will negatively impact the esteem and productivity of the workplace or institution.

The Law Says No, So Should You

Sexual Harassment is a criminal offence in Sri Lanka and there are many laws and regulations for its prohibition. According to Article 12 (2) of the Constitution, discriminating against a person based on his or her sex is a violation of such person’s fundamental right to equality. 

Sexual Harassment is criminally punishable under Section 345 of the Penal Code (Amendment) Act, No. 22 of 1995:

“Whoever, by assault or use of criminal force, sexually harasses another person or by the use of words or actions, causes sexual annoyance or harassment to such other person commits the offence of sexual harassment and shall on conviction be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to five years or with fine or with both and may also be ordered to pay compensation of an amount determined by court to the person in respect of whom the offence was committed for the injuries caused to such person.”

This includes unwelcome sexual advances by words or action used by a person in authority (eg. police, armed service personnel, school officials, medical officials etc.), unwelcome sexual advances in the workplace, misuse of the internet, and emails that are obscene or make allegations of a sexual nature in order to harass, intimidate or embarrass. 

Encouraging or condoning sexual harassment is also a crime under the law.

Under the Section 2 (2) of Prohibition of Ragging and other forms of Violence in Educational Institutions Act, No. 20 of 1998, it is stated that if a person causes sexual harassment while ragging any student or a member of the staff of an educational institution, he or she will be given a imprisonment of a minimum of ten years, and may also be ordered to pay compensation of an amount determined by court.

“A person who, whilst committing ragging causes sexual harassment or grievous hurt to any student or a member of the staff, of an educational institution shall be guilty of an offence under this Act and shall on conviction after summary trial before a Magistrate be liable to imprisonment for a term not exceeding ten years and may also be ordered to pay compensation of an amount determined by court, to the person in respect of whom the offence was committed for the injuries caused to such person.”

Why Does it Go Unreported?

The Report of the Leader of the Opposition’s Commission on the Prevention of Violence against Women and the Girl Child (2014) states that,

 “the high incidence of street-based sexual harassment that is a virtually unreported crime, condoned and [invisibilized]  that occurs with rampant impunity. Sexual harassment in the workplace is equally insidious and brings into play unequal patriarchal power relations that are not dealt with in any seriousness either in the public sector or in the private sector.”

Many factors cause the concealment of sexual harassment: fear of making matters worse, low self-esteem, lack of awareness of legal sphere, fear of harming one’s reputation, low encouragement by the law enforcement authorities for complaints, its acceptance as a common occurrence, common practice of blaming victims rather than the aggressor, and the fear of death threats.

 All these factors result the humiliation of the victims making matters far more worse for them.

Taking Action

It is recommended to take immediate action after an incident of sexual harassment. Directly refusing sexual  actions, informing a responsible party and standing up for someone else when they are being harassed  are the most essential measures.

Taking legal action against an offender is recommended because it prevents any further repercussions caused by the offender. Furthermore, less people will be affected by their harassment.

If sexual harassment  takes place,

  • on public transportation: it can be reported to the National Transport Commission –1955,  the police hotline 119, and the women’s helpline by the Ministry of Women’s and Child Affairs-1938
  • in an educational institute: you can report it to the principal, dean, registrar or director for an inquiry and action. A university or institution may have a code on sexual harassment. Check whether such a code has been adopted, and if so follow the procedure given. Report it the incident to the police  if no action is taken by the education institute.
  • in the workplace: report it to your superior, human resource manager or any other authority. If the company or institution has a sexual harassment policy, follow the procedure laid out. You can also report it to the police at the same time. (Give precise information to the police by writing the incident down.)