How I Became an Active Bystander
By Samantha Wickramasinghe, CCASA Blogger
Being an active bystander is an important role when dealing with issues related to sexual violence. As a teenager who grew up in Sri Lanka (the pearl of the Indian Ocean) I did not know the meaning or the significance of the term “active bystander.” But I never thought that this phrase would become an important one in my life after realizing that I was a part of culture that tolerated and harbored sexual violence.
I was lucky to get the opportunity to be educated in well-to-do prestigious high schools in Sri Lanka. Every morning and afternoon I took the public bus to go to school and one of the first things I encountered was how people’s sexual tension was released on the public transportation. I saw so many people (mostly men) sexually harassing women and children, taking advantage of the over-crowded atmosphere of the buses. By the way this was not a topic that was discussed in the mainstream media nor was I educated about the prevalence of sexual violence in public transportation. I saw how people suffered, not having the ability to raise their voices. I did not speak for them, instead I became a sustainer of the culture of sexual violence. There were exceptions, special moments evoked by human conscience where active bystanders or survivors spoke up, but these moments were rare and to this day I remember them. Thus, my journey of becoming an active bystander was not a smooth one. I learned my lessons the hard way.
One night after work my mother came home with a tiredness that was unusual to her. I was watching T.V. with my father. She nervously looked at me and my father and told us that she had to face a hostile experience when she was coming home by bus. She told us that somebody sexually harassed her on the bus. I remained dumbfounded, guilty and silent. My father did not listen to my mother, instead he asked her why she was taking the bus so late in the night. At that moment, both my father and I became sustainers of the culture of sexual violence and victim blaming.
The truth was that the woman that I loved the most in this world was hurt and I kept my mouth shut. My wounds did not stop there. Even after I decided that I would no longer stand silently by when I observed sexual violence, my dear friend who I loved called me one day and told me about a terrible experience she had to face on the bus because of sexual violence. One of the smartest and most outspoken women I knew was silenced that day. She could not raise her voice on the bus and I wish there was a culture that had provided safety and security for her to raise her voice. I also wish there was an active bystander who had spoken for my mother that night. But I do not wish anymore. I am an active bystander because I care for other people. I know that if I do not stand up for survivors, my family will be hurt.
After coming to the United States as an international student, I graduated with a Bachelor’s Degree in Journalism. I decided that I wanted to become a journalist, because I did not wanted to be a part of a culture that sustained and nourished sexual violence, misogyny and homophobia. I am an advocate who constantly wants to educate young people about rape culture and teach them how to become an active bystander. By being an active bystander, I want to create a society and a world where people will speak for each other’s safety, equality, security, peace and dignity.