Speaker Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena saw red yesterday in the House, and took SJB MP Rohini Kumari Wijerathna to task for accusing him of having turned a blind eye to a recent incident where a group of male SLPP MPs allegedly subjected SJB MP Thalatha Athukorale to verbal sexual harassment during a debate. Denying that he had ever taken any instance of sexual harassment lightly, a visibly incensed Speaker said he had not been in the Chair when the alleged incident was said to have happened. He warned MP Wijerathna not to bring the House and its members into disrepute by making false allegations.
MP Wijerathna may have got it wrong about the Speaker, but that does not mean her main complaint against some SLPP MPs should go uninvestigated. She would not have made it and incurred the wrath of the government in the process if she had not witnessed the incident. The real issue is not who was in the Chair at the time of the incident, but that a female MP suffered sexual harassment in Parliament itself, and nobody has done anything about it.
We do not, for a moment, think Speaker Abeywardena ignored an instance of sexual harassment. He may not have been present in the Chamber at the time, as he has said, and the member in the Chair may not have heard the lewd remarks in question amidst the din in the house. However, now that MP Wijerathna has made an official complaint to the Speaker about the alleged incident, a probe is called for.
Worryingly, government MPs responsible for verbal sexual harassment have gone scot-free to all intents and purposes, and MP Wijerathna, who courageously took up cudgels for the victim, has got censured! This may be the reason why women who become victims of sexual harassment are afraid of seeking justice. Media reports about some dirty lawmakers sexually harassing women MPs, during the yahapalana government, also went uninvestigated because the victims were too scared to make complaints. Misogynists in the garb of MPs are really lucky.
There are some good men and women in Parliament, and they should sink their political differences and join forces to ensure that female MPs can carry out their legislative duties with dignity, free from harassment. The onus is on the Women Parliamentarians Caucus to mobilise these MPs as well as others who abhor sexual harassment in all its forms and manifestations.
The question of anyone bringing Parliament into disrepute does not arise, given the steep drop in public esteem for it. There have been situations where brawls in the Chamber frightened schoolchildren, in the public gallery, out of their wits; some of them were so shaken that they burst into tears. In 2018, the Joint Opposition MPs (who are currently in the SLPP) resorted to violence to disrupt parliamentary proceedings as they had failed to muster a working majority for the forcibly formed Mahinda-Maithri government teetering on the brink of collapse. Speaker Karu Jayasuirya had to be removed to safety as they moved towards him. The rioting MPs toppled the Speaker’s Chair and damaged his desk. Nobody was punished for the riot in the House although complaints were lodged with the police, and a parliamentary committee was appointed to look into it. All those mobsters in the garb of MPs should have been sacked by way of deterrent punishment.
The problem that MP Wijerathna sought to have solved by bringing it to the notice of Parliament remains unsolved. But she can rest assured that all right-thinking people are on her side. The Opposition must ratchet up pressure on the government to take punitive action against the SLPP MPs responsible for sexual harassment of female Opposition MPs.
Where are the Opposition knights in kapati suit,who are making a public display of their chivalry, and looking for dragons to slay, and do a lot of tilting at windmills? Will they summon the moxie to fight for the rights of women MPs among them?