Why Women Feel Unsafe on Public Transport

Women and men on a bus in Yichang, PRC.
Women and men on a bus in Yichang, PRC.

By Heather Allen

Harassment affects women and men alike, but as we are wired differently, concerns over personal security affect women more than men.

I have had the privilege to travel widely. As a professional woman, it has been rare that this has caused me any real trouble apart from a few weird and wonderful experiences and my luggage being lost on a few international trips. However, recently my work has included a greater focus on gender aspects and investigating the differences between how women and men travel on a daily basis.

The work I am currently doing for ADB on the issue of personal security and public transport from a woman’s perspective looks at two Asian cities, Manila and Yichang, and it is proving particularly interesting.

Cities in Asia are booming, and their populations growing at an eye-watering speed. To enjoy all the benefits that city life brings, the reality is that you will need to use motorized transport on a daily basis. Many studies show that women use all forms of public transport more than men and, more importantly, they rely on it more than men do as they have fewer or no other mobility choices. Women are also more worried about using public transport, and rightly so as their personal security is frequently compromised.

Statistics show that men suffer more serious and violent assaults, while women suffer more sexual harassment. Harassment takes various forms, from innocuous verbal friendly female/male banter to cat-calling, leering and staring, all the way to physical acts of groping or men exposing themselves, and worse. There is also the subjective nature of how different individuals interpret what might be considered harassment.

In some cultures sexual harassment can be directed by social norms of acceptable behavior; in others it may be religious, faith or even income-based. We are not just talking violence here, but rather behavior that is unwanted, uninvited or stimulates fear in others. Unfortunately, it is the fear of what might happen that affects people as badly as anything actually happening. This is very personal and is perceived by different women in different ways, making it quite complex to interpret or to make suggestions on how best to deal with the problem. They say that women come from Venus and men from Mars – but it seems that there are also lots of different perspectives on Venus.

Collecting data on harassment is challenging partly because the information can be spread across a number of security agencies, and many incidents are not reported. But from the research undertaken to date by others, and myself, it is clear that sexual harassment happens more often than is thought. It also seems that the reason why the majority of cases are not reported appears to be because women have less conviction than men that anything will happen if they go to the police with their grievance (unless there is a clear cut case of criminal activity). This was confirmed in Yichang, where petty crime on the BRT when it is crowded was the greatest worry.

A factor limiting Asia-Pacific’s ability to fully realize its economic potential is low level of female labor force participation, often below 60%. Some East Asian countries that have enjoyed steady economic growth over the last 3-4 decades have done so in part due to high female labor force participation. So we need to better understand how to get more women into the labor force – and it seems that just having jobs available will not be enough, they also need a safe way to get to their jobs

Women play a strong role in influencing the value sets of their children. If they pass a negative value judgement onto their kids about using public transport, based on their experience and perceptions, boys and girls will grow up thinking that public transport is unsafe. When they grow up, they will prefer to buy or share a car, motorbike or scooter, creating a vicious downward spiral of increasing traffic congestion.

Harassment is not just a woman’s ‘thing’ as it affects everyone – men and women alike suffer from it. However, because we are wired differently, concerns over personal security affect women more than men. To avoid putting themselves at risk, women—myself included—tend to use strategies to reduce risk and in extreme cases this may mean that they decide to not travel at all, so they will not take up educational or employment occupations. Either way, this issue impacts women’s mobility, their access to opportunities, and ultimately their quality of life. But if we do not know how this work we cannot design transport systems that are safe and attractive to women if they are designed by men without this understanding.

So where does that lead us? Certainly further away from where we want to be in terms of equal opportunities and sustainable development, but the work currently being undertaken might help bring Venus closer to Mars.