Saying NO to harassment

By Gender Team on Thu, 13 February 2014

Written by Shanny Campbell, Gender and Social Development Specialist

Women are the majority users of public transport. This may be because they are less likely to drive a car than men, or less likely to have priority use of a family vehicle. They are also more likely than men to be poor, making the ownership, re-fuelling and maintenance of a motor vehicle less of an option, especially for women in many developing countries. We can add this to the pervasive gender stereotypes in some countries dictating whether it is culturally appropriate for women to drive a car, take a bus, or even travel at all, especially on their own.

Logically, public transport systems should be designed with women in mind: their several-stop journeys to access public services; to incorporate care and income earning needs; their management of children and food purchases; their need for well-lit waiting areas, timely and affordable services and good transport information. Most of these design features are now fairly standard on the public transport projects supported by ADB.  

What I would like to see receiving more attention is public harassment, an issue highlighted by many women’s NGOs.

Public harassment of women and girls has major implications for other areas of women’s empowerment. In fact, harassment on the street, public transport and other public spaces can be considered part of a vicious cycle which not only discourages the mobility of women and girls (and undermines the empowering benefits of access to education, income and services that mobility affords), but also increases the passivity and tolerance of harassment in others.

Just as desensitization to violence has been shown to increase aggression in male players of video games, insensitivity to public harassment of women and girls can increase the incidence of more violent crimes against women by lowering their social status.

Consider this. A woman is harassed in public, let’s say on a train. She is embarrassed. She wonders if it’s her fault because she was polite, or wore nice clothes. Mostly she is disgusted. But often, she does nothing. She is passive and she tolerates it. Society has conditioned her to put up with it. Bystanders may notice but see she is silent, so they are also apathetic.

The crime is not reported.  There is no punishment. It seems to be publically condoned, so the perpetrator feels emboldened, empowered. The few who do complain are viewed skeptically. Remarks such as these are not unknown – ‘hardly anyone else minds, it’s just a bit of fun, surely. There are worse things happening out there. It’s surely not worth the attention of the police, or the security personnel’. But meanwhile, steadily, the respect for women as public transport users of equal value, equal rights, equal dignity, is eroding. A culture of victim-blaming grows. Minor harassment turns into stalking, attacking, and worse. Women and girls using public transport become fewer, more fearful. Families actively restrict their mobility. It’s not safe for you.

In the aftermath of the horrendous Delhi bus rape/murder case in December 2012, the lawyer for the defendants famously noted that the blame for the attack should be with the victims, since they should not have been using public transport at night. Interestingly, the perpetrators were identified in part due to Delhi CCTV footage. Enhancements to public security such as lighting, CCTV, security guards in known harassment hotspots, as well as effective anti-harassment media campaigns, complaint hotlines and prominent signage all have a place in modern public transport systems that are gender responsive.

Cellphone applications, which enable quick reporting and monitoring of trouble spots, or publicly shame offenders, are also increasingly being used. These include Harass Map in Egypt, Circle of 6, Fight Back and Nirbhaya in India, Not Your Baby in Toronto, and similar crowd-sourced applications such as Hollaback in 24 countries (including the USA,  Ireland, Turkey, Italy, Korea, India and Poland), and NGO-backed systems in Bangladesh and Pakistan. The more comprehensive programs offer follow up advice, services, self-defense classes, tip sheets and promote systems of neighborhood guardianship rewarded by ‘safe spot’ promotion.

All of this action can break down stereotypes, stop the culture of victim blaming, and enable women and girls to receive the benefits they deserve from efficient public transportation services.