Image courtesy of www.thenewsminute.com/.
Sri Lanka’s corporate world (and, well, basically just Sri Lanka) has been rocked over the last week or so by stories of female journalists coming out on social media to speak about the direct and indirect harassment they have faced in their workplaces. The stories of these women on social media have sparked public outcry, shining light once more on the issues women face with harassment, especially at the workplace, and from people in positions of power.
The stories coming out prompted response on an official level with Media Minister and Cabinet Spokesman Keheliya Rambukwella commenting that he had asked the Government Information
Department to investigate and ensure women journalists had a safe working environment and stressing that the sternest action possible would be taken against perpetrators of harassment and abuse. The Minister has since announced, however, that his Ministry will not be launching an investigation into the allegations of harassment, stating that any complaints must be made formally to the Police or the Media Ministry for investigation to take place. The Minister also shared on a separate occasion that it is the responsibility of media organisations to create a safe environment for women and to make sure incidents of harassment and abuse do not take place.
This outpouring of stories (and solidarity) on social media has created a movement reminiscent to the #MeToo social media movement that began in the United States in 2017, which does leave room for some hope that this is potentially a turning point for Sri Lanka on how it handles harassment in the workplace. Brunch reached out to two of the journalists who were very vocal about their experiences as well as to a few other personalities on the potential of Sri Lanka’s version of #MeToo.
The #MeToo movement as we know it today first officially began with an exposé detailing allegations of sexual harassment by Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein in 2017, which was followed by an outpouring of stories from women on social media, from celebrities and public figures to ordinary people on the abuse they had faced at work. The global #MeToo movement saw some of the most powerful people in entertainment, sports, and politics being exposed for sexually harassing or assaulting others. Weinstein, whose history of harassment was what started the movement, was eventually charged with rape in 2018 and sentenced to 23 years in prison.
Looking at Sri Lanka’s version of #MeToo
Brunch spoke with journalist Sarah Kellapatha, whose tweet outlining an alleged rape threat she had received from a colleague some years previously was what led to Sri Lanka’s version of the #MeToo movement. Speaking on what led her to share her story, Sarah explained that she’d noticed people online discussing sexual harassment, and she wanted to contribute. “I had wanted to post about my experience in the hope that people would truly be aware of the situation that has long existed in workspaces in Sri Lanka,” Sarah said. “I always thought that if it was (and probably still is) a rampant issue in the media industry, it probably exists in other industries in Sri Lanka as well.”
For Aisha Nazim, another journalist who was also very vocal about harassment, and even compiled a Twitter thread of Sri Lankan #MeToo instances to highlight the severity of the situation, it was seeing a former perpetrator of bullying looking for crowdfunding to form a new media organisation that led her to speak up. “I’d brought up the bullying in a conversation (on the same platform) earlier, and his response was that he was ‘petty like that’. So when I saw this happen repeatedly followed by a crowdfunding request, something flipped,” Aisha said. “I wasn’t going to allow him to do the same things over and over again, with other women who might end up on his path. Soon after my initial post, a couple of other women spoke up about their experiences as well. I knew of many similar instances with other perps and where the affected women didn’t want to come out publicly, so I just threaded them together since there were a few public responses.”
Commenting on the virality of her tweets and the birth of what is now being looked at as Sri Lanka’s version of #MeToo, Sarah shared that while it was unexpected, and initially overwhelming, she is glad that the reality of the situation is being grasped. “I can’t say that I was surprised, because as women in the media industry, we have seen and experienced how we have been spoken to, or seen what happens to other women,” she said. “It was heartening to see people come forward to offer their support and encouragement too, so victims did not feel that coming forward with their experiences was in vain. When local and international news websites picked up the story, I was stunned to see how viral this had become, but overall I’m quite glad that this has prompted various companies to take abuse and sexual harassment seriously, because this is vital and necessary. It should have been so, years ago, but sometimes, change doesn’t happen overnight, and I’m grateful that at least now, people will feel supported if they face any sort of abuse and/or harassment at their places of work, and will feel encouraged to come forward and make a complaint to management.”
For Aisha, the amount of people coming forward was sobering. “Honestly, it just made me feel worse to ‘see’ how prevalent the abuse is. Like, we know it happens, but seeing it all laid out, and reading messages from multiple other women of their experiences (with the same perpetrators) was really really infuriating. It made me feel angry and helpless at seeing how unaffected these men guilty of these acts were, and how they’re still just going about their lives,” Aisha said.
#MeToo as an agent of change in Sri Lanka’s workplace
The global #MeToo movement accomplished a lot at the social level, driving awareness and highlighting the need for anti-harassment policies and driving conversation on the topic to help make not just safer workplaces, but a safer world.
In a Sri Lankan context, it is not yet clear how far #MeToo can make an impact. Aisha, who shared publicly that she doesn’t hold a lot of faith in movements that flare up and then down again, said that she doesn’t see how this #MeToo campaign can make lasting change. “Going by how small the industries here are, and how well connected most of the men are: doing so would jeopardise job opportunities, and it’s not like we have the ability to just move countries and find work elsewhere. I am hopeful that it will drive some amount of change though, at least in establishing a sense of empowerment among younger women who join the field, and in setting the foundations for a workplace sexual harassment policy, among others.”
Sarah shared a more hopeful view but stressed that timing is crucial. “Action needs to be taken swiftly. Companies and/or organisations need strong abuse and sexual harassment policies, not just for the sake of having a policy that will be ignored later, but to take swift action against the perpetrator, and to offer their utmost support to the victim. Given the immediate call to action that companies have since been quite vocal about, employees can hold them accountable, to create safer workspaces for people. As for whether it can drive the same amount of change as the global movement, I do believe this is possible, even if it takes time.”
How can we move forward?
Nalaka said it is important too for media companies to recognise that sexual harassment is pervasive and, far from being isolated incidents, it has become systemic, and that it is vital for adequate anti sexual harassment policies or mechanisms to be put in place. “If the media owners and managers do not immediately step up to their obligations to create a safe working environment for all, the media sector trade unions and professional associations need to begin and sustain pressure on their management for such reforms.” Media Analyst Nalaka Gunawardene shared with Brunch that #MeToo emerging in Sri Lanka is certainly a welcome development, even if it is three and a half years after the movement made a statement globally. “This delay itself is revealing of the semi-feudal nature and stark power inequalities in many of our workplaces including the media,” Nalaka said, adding that what is important now is how the movement can be seized for critical reflection and meaningful reform, saying: “The media industry needs to end the denial and admit that sexual harassment of women (and sometimes men) happens in media offices on a regular basis.”
Hans Billimoria of the Grassrooted Trust also highlighted the responsibility that media institutions have to implement policies that prevent sexual harassment and exclusion based on gender and ensure a respectful workplace for all their employees, stressing that following through is vital. “These policies must make it beyond existing to being disseminated to all teams to ensure no-one has the trite excuse – I didn’t know this action, these words, constitute harassment or discrimination. Listen to these experiences from within. Act. If you need help, get in touch. Sensible steps can be taken to make sure everyone feels heeded and valued.”
Hashtag Generation Co-Founder and Director Senel Wanniarachchi shared that now that survivors have spoken up about these practices, it is up to those in decision-making and leadership positions at these institutions to hold those responsible to account and also take structural and institutional changes to ensure non-recurrence: “I think this moment is an opportunity for all of us to introspect and look at the institution’s we are all affiliated to. As people in the media and civil society who work towards holding policymakers to account, we need to get our own houses in order.”
Public relations consultant Jessica Fernando also encouraged victims of harassment and bullying to come forward and not be silenced, because there are many organisations that will be able to support them, even with taking legal action. Public relations consultant Jessica Fernando shared that it is high time #MeToo made its way to Sri Lanka’s shores, urging companies to prioritise sexual harassment and bullying policies and take initiatives to change culture within companies and root out future mishaps. Speaking from a PR perspective, Fernando shared that if staff within a company are unable, or worse, afraid to speak out against harassment and bullying, then the management of that company is failing their own company’s future, and in future will be unable to attract the right talent. “You will be labelled as a certain company,” Fernando said, “and then no matter how much you pay, no one will want to work for you. Things like this will continue to mar a company’s brand name, and brand names are something we work very hard to build. If you are not giving this priority then you are not ready for 2022.”
Yeheliya Foundation Director Attorney-at-Law Tarangee Mutucumarana shared that the Yeheliya Foundation has always been a big believer and supporter of the #MeToo movement, noting: “The movement has brought sexual harassment to the forefront, highlighted gender disparities, and entrenched gender stereotypes. While these allegations are indeed disturbing and agonising, it is also unfortunately all too familiar for women everywhere.”
Tarangee shared that what we need is change from the top, not just in the media industry but in all workplaces where sexual harassment is rampant, stressing: “This change is a necessity now. As it is difficult to rely purely on the legal system, it is necessary to have an Anti- sexual harassment policy, awareness sessions and structures for confidential complaining mechanisms, which allow for both parties to be heard through a fair inquiry and redress to be provided.”
Tarangee also applauded all the women who have come forward to share their stories: “We would like to applaud you for your bravery and thank you for the platform you have provided for others like you to come forward with their stories. We hear you, we admire you, we believe you and we stand with you.”