In June, 2021 Sri Lanka Journalism sector was hit by a Sexual Harassment Controversy. Several female journalists sparked a #MeToo style social media campaign by revealing details of the abuse.
The spate of claims started when journalist Sarah Kellapatha tweeted on June 18, 2021 that a male reporter had threatened to rape her while she was working at a newspaper from 2010 to 2017. Kellapatha also said it was almost impossible for any female to wear a dress to work without having to endure salacious remarks from male colleagues about their legs and bodies in general. She further said that they would utter a loud “sexy” whenever they felt like it.
After this tweet, many female journalists joined the #MeTooSrilanka campaign through social media against sexual harassment in newsrooms across the country. For example, another female journalist said in her social media post “Some send SMS messages at night when women journalists go home. They ask what kind of dress she wears at night.”
On June 29, 2021 Media Minister Keheliya Rambukwella issued a statement that his Ministry will not launch an investigation based on social media reports of allegations of sexual harassment in media institutions. He further said that if there is an incident then a complaint must be made to the Police or the Media Ministry.
Law around Sexual Harassment in Sri Lanka
This made us wonder what legal remedies exist in Sri Lanka to handle the issue of sexual harassment at workplaces.
1. Penal Code
Section 345 of Penal Code of Sri Lanka states that:
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.
Section 345 of the Sri Lankan Penal Code is a criminal provision with imprisonment and fine. In India, we have criminal provision under the Indian Penal Code as well as a civil law against sexual harassment at workplaces.
The criminal provision under the Indian Law is covered by Section 354-A of the Indian Penal Code (“IPC”) which states the following definition of Sexual harassment
(A). A man committing any of the following acts—
- physical contact and advances involving unwelcome and explicit sexual overtures; or
- a demand or request for sexual favours; or
- showing pornography against the will of a woman; or
- making sexually coloured remarks,
shall be guilty of the offence of sexual harassment.
(B). Any man who commits the offence specified in clause (i) or (ii) or (iii) of sub-section (1) shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term which may extend to three years, or with fine, or with both.
(C). Any man who commits the offence specified in clause (iv) of sub-section (1) shall be punished with imprisonment of either description for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both.
2. Bribery Act, 1956
Section 19 ofThe Bribery Act, states that a public servant can be charged with sexual harassment if he or she (in relation to any other person in the transaction of his/her official duties) “Solicit or accepts any gratification as an inducement or a reward for his performing or abstaining from performing any official act or for such expediting, delaying, hindering, preventing, assisting or favoring”
A person guilty of soliciting or accepting sexual gratification shall be punished with rigorous imprisonment for a term of not more than seven years and a fine not exceeding five thousand rupees.
In Republic of Sri Lanka v. Abdul Rashak Kuthubdeen (/B 839/93) it was held that the demand for sexual favours in consideration of job promotion will be interpreted as a ‘bribe’.
In the Indian context, we have not come across any court decisions which suggest a similar stance, however Section 3 (2) of the Indian POSH Act, 2013 states that—
The following circumstances, among other circumstances, may amount to sexual harassment: —
- implied or explicit promise of preferential treatment in her employment; or
- implied or explicit threat of detrimental treatment in her employment; or
- implied or explicit threat about her present or future employment status; or
- interference with her work or creating an intimidating or offensive or hostile work environment for her; or
- humiliating treatment likely to affect her health or safety.
3. Prohibition of ragging and other forms of violence in educational institutions Act, 1998
Section 2(2) of the Prohibition of ragging and other forms of violence in educational institutions Act,1998 states that:
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 the Act.
Under the said act, a person guilty of sexual harassment while ragging (within or outside an educational institution) can be imprisoned for a term not exceeding ten years and in addition ordered to pay compensation to the victim of an amount determined by court to the person in respect of whom the offence was committed for the injuries caused to such person.
In contrast, in India, the University Grants Commissions has regulations to govern ragging in colleges and universities (UGC regulations on curbing the menace of Ragging in Higher Educational Institutions, 2009) and also has separate regulations against sexual harassment (UGC (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal of sexual harassment of women employees and student in high educational institutions), Regulations, 2015)
This shows that while there are a few provisions to combat sexual harassment in Sri Lankan workplaces as well as educational institutions, however the provisions appear to be criminal in nature. There does not seem to be a civil law to take care of such concerns internally by organizations as disciplinary concerns or misconduct. A law dealing with such concerns internally may also provide for duties of employers/ educational institutions and may go a long way in creating a safe and conducive work environment for everyone.
– Vaishali Jain, Advocate & Associate – POSH at Work