In Sri Lanka, thousands of young girls travel from their rural villages to places like Biyagama to work in factories. They usually work for five years before returning to their villages to marry (this description reminds me of factory girls in New England during the Industrial Revolution). The living and working conditions are generally grueling.
“For the girls working in the FTZ, malnourishment and poor facilities such as lack of water and lavatories sans doors a distance from their rooms are the least of their problems.
Away from their families and villages, these girls not only face sexual harassment on the road but also within the congested compounds they live in.
Sexual harassment was seen as a serious problem for young girls going to or returning from work, by 21-year-old Kumari*, who says with stoic resignation that they are compelled to come to towns far away from home because they cannot get the same wages. ‘We are forced to come to the city for work,’ she laments, explaining that they move around in groups to avoid these problems.
As girls work at odd hours and also sometimes have to go to the common well for their baths, chain snatchings have become routine, while catcalls and obscenities are also everyday happenings which they ignore. “Zipper men”, the girls’ name for perverts, stalk them.
“Three-wheeler drivers stop and ask, ‘Nangi koheda yanne’, offering to give a ride,” said Kumari.
Certain groups in these areas think they can do whatever they want with the girls, stresses Mr. Marcus, explaining that in addition to harassing them, they sometimes strike up love affairs to get money from the girls. “The girls are lonely and sometimes gullible,” he says adding that many of them fall into trouble and undergo illegal abortions.
There are many quacks operating in these areas, according to him, but these problems are never discussed in the open. “It’s accepted and forgotten.”
A recent trend has also been cyclists and motorcyclists “putting vettu” (veering) towards them and sometimes going out of control and actually knocking them down. A girl who was seriously injured was not even paid for her medical treatment, some alleged, adding that even though a complaint was made to the police no action was taken against the culprit.”
This story breaks my heart. What power do they have against these men? What power do they have to change their lives of poverty?