Preventing Violence Against Women in Public Transport Systems

When using rideshare services or public transit, like metros or buses, the idea of gender disparities might not immediately come to mind, especially if you are a man. However, the experiences of men and women within these transport systems vary significantly, especially concerning physical safety. Incidents of violence and harassment against women in public transport are alarmingly common, which creates a significant barrier to freedom of movement and personal safety. 

According to a survey from UN Women UK, 80% of women aged 18-24 said they have experienced sexual harassment in public spaces. Globally, an estimated 736 million women — almost one in three — have been subjected to physical and/or sexual violence by someone they know or a stranger.

Violence against women and girls remains one of the most prevalent human rights violations in the world. In this blog post we explore different strategies for preventing violence against women within our transportation systems, to create a safer travel environment for everyone.

preventing violence against women

Preventing Violence Against Women in Public Transport Systems

Understanding the issue

The cornerstone of preventing violence against women in transportation systems lies in acknowledging the extent of the problem. Violence against women in transportation goes beyond the alarming incidents we often hear about, like physical assaults. It starts with something as seemingly simple as words – those unwelcome comments or unsettling remarks that can escalate to threats. These aren’t just isolated unpleasant experiences; they’re part of a much larger, deeply rooted problem.

“When I was sixteen, I spent a month in Florence to improve my Italian. I was in a homestay with an older woman and felt quite safe living with her. However, every morning I had to take a 30 minute ride on a very crowded bus to the language school, located in the center of Florence. I was groped more than once during those four weeks, and being the very shy and timid teenager that I was, I used to freeze every time. I had hoped that by not moving, I would stop the perpetrator, instead it encouraged them. Needless to say, I preferred the 60 minute walk to school, meeting up with another student half-way, over being on that crowded bus.” – Sandra Phillips, CEO, movmi
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Sandra Phillips
CEO, movmi

Think about the ripple effect: these acts of violence and harassment create a climate of fear that has real implications for women. It leads to changes in travel behavior, like avoiding certain routes or times, which can disrupt everything from work commitments to educational pursuits and social engagements. It’s a barrier to gender equality, limiting women’s access to opportunities and full participation in society.

The normalization of this behavior in transportation settings sends a troubling message about societal attitudes. It makes it harder for women to speak up and be heard, which can diminish the urgency of these issues.

That is why acknowledging this problem is critical and needs to be done with a full understanding of its complexities. More than just these individual incidents, it’s about seeing the broader patterns, like the impact it has on women’s day-to-day lives, and the societal norms that need to change.

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Preventative Strategies

Investing in Infrastructure and Transportation Design

Investing in the infrastructure and design of transportation systems is a vital step in reducing the risk of violence against women. A well-lit, well-maintained, and properly supervised transport system can act as a significant deterrent to potential perpetrators.

A successful example of this is the introduction of better lighting and increased CCTV coverage in the London Underground led to a notable decrease in crime rates. Specifically, reports of violent crimes dropped by about 20% in well-lit areas, highlighting the effectiveness of such simple yet crucial modifications.

Another example comes from Tokyo, Japan, where the implementation of women-only carriages during peak hours significantly reduced the incidents of harassment and groping, common issues in the city’s crowded trains. This initiative, along with increased surveillance and signage, created safer spaces for women commuters.

In Melbourne, Australia, the ‘Secure Stations Program,’ which focused on improving lighting, installing more CCTV cameras, and increasing staff presence at train stations, resulted in a 40% reduction in crime rates at these stations. These improvements not only enhanced safety but also increased the perception of safety among commuters, particularly women.

These examples demonstrate that strategic investments in infrastructure and design can have a successful impact on the safety of women in public transportation systems. Adequate lighting, CCTV surveillance, and thoughtful design, including safe waiting areas and clear sightlines, are essential in creating an environment where women feel safe. Such measures not only prevent incidents of violence but also encourage more women to use public transportation, thereby promoting greater mobility and independence.

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Training and Awareness for Staff

The role of transport staff in ensuring passenger safety cannot be overstated. They are often the first line of defense against incidents of violence and harassment. Training programs for drivers, conductors, and station staff should not only focus on recognizing the signs of harassment and violence but also on how to intervene effectively and safely. This involves practical exercises in conflict resolution, emergency response procedures, and understanding the nuances of gender-based violence.

For example, in Stockholm, Sweden, public transport staff underwent specialized training to identify and handle harassment cases. This initiative resulted in a marked improvement in staff response and a better sense of security among passengers. Similarly, Transport for London’s ‘Report It to Stop It’ campaign trained staff to identify and respond to sexual harassment, leading to increased reporting and awareness.

Incorporating gender sensitivity into these training programs is also crucial. Staff should be made aware of the unique challenges and fears that women face while using public transport. This understanding can foster a more empathetic and proactive approach to passenger safety.

Technology for Safety

Incorporating technology into public transportation safety strategies can offer transformative solutions. Apps and digital platforms that facilitate real-time reporting of incidents can drastically improve the way safety issues are managed and responded to on public transport systems.

A notable example is the ‘SafeCity’ app in India, which has been instrumental in addressing sexual harassment in public spaces, including transportation systems. This app allows users to anonymously report incidents, which are then mapped to identify and address high-risk areas or ‘hotspots’. Such data-driven approaches are crucial for authorities to implement targeted safety measures.

In South Korea, the introduction of the ‘Emergency Help Me’ app, designed for use in Seoul’s subway system, provides another compelling case. This app allows passengers, especially women, to alert the subway security staff discreetly about any harassment or unsafe situations, enabling a faster response.

Additionally, journey tracking apps enhance personal security by keeping passengers connected with trusted contacts. For example, Uber now lets users have friends or family virtually accompany them by tracking their journey in real-time. This not only provides a sense of security for the user but also reassures their loved ones.

Another notable example is EmpowerWISM’s 2022 winner Halo (help a lady out). Their business model works in two ways. The first is that they embed safety cards into regular transportation apps that show women how to physically de-escalate any threatening situations they might be faced with. When these safety cards are accessed, HALO tracks the data to highlight risk zones, times etc. and the data is given to the public transportation provider to address.

These technological interventions do more than just enhance safety; they empower passengers, particularly women, by providing tools to actively manage their security and share their experiences. This empowerment is crucial, as it not only helps in immediate situations but also contributes to a larger dataset that transportation authorities can use to devise more effective safety measures and response protocols.

Government Funding and Legislation

Combating violence against women and girls, demands decisive actions and government funding. This includes a significant emphasis on prevention strategies, which are often overlooked in favor of reactive measures. However, there’s a worrying lack of data regarding the extent of investment by nations in countering this form of violence. It’s alarming to note that only a small fraction of government aid is allocated specifically to this issue. According to the UN, it’s estimated that merely 5% of such aid is directed towards addressing violence against women and girls, with a meager 0.2% earmarked for preventive measures. This disparity highlights a crucial gap in our approach to tackling gender-based violence.

To effectively address this issue, a more comprehensive investment strategy is needed. This includes increasing funding for women’s organizations, which play a pivotal role in supporting survivors, raising awareness, and advocating for policy changes. These organizations often operate with limited resources and yet are crucial in driving change at the grassroots level.

At the beginning of 2021, movmi created the EmpowerWISM award, to elevate and celebrate the women designing, building and innovating in the shared mobility industry. Why did we do this? Because we feel that women are severely underrepresented in this sector. In fact less than 22% of the transportation workforce is female and of those less than 3% are in a CEO position. What these figures boil down to, is that our transportation system has an inherent gender design bias. With a lack of women in leadership roles, how can we expect our transportation services and infrastructure be designed with women in mind? This is why we also need to encourage, motivate and support female leaders within this space to ensure gender equality.

Stay tuned for the EmpowerWISM 2024 program coming this January! More updates are coming in December!

EmpowerWISM graphic

Legislative reform is also essential. There’s a need for better laws that not only define and penalize acts of violence against women and girls more clearly but also support survivors through their legal journey. This should be coupled with the effective prosecution of perpetrators, sending a strong message that such acts will not be tolerated.

In Spain, for example, the government has implemented comprehensive legislation addressing gender-based violence. The Organic Act on Integrated Protection Measures against Gender Violence, enacted in 2004, provides a broad legal framework for protecting women against violence, including in public spaces. This legislation is bolstered by specific policies such as awareness campaigns and training for transportation staff, which have significantly contributed to a safer transit environment for women.

In Brazil, the city of Rio de Janeiro implemented a policy in 2006 that mandated women-only cars on trains during peak hours. This policy was a response to the high levels of harassment and violence against women in mixed-gender cars. The implementation of this policy required significant investment in terms of signage, enforcement, and public education campaigns. This initiative not only improved safety for women but also raised public awareness about the issue of gender-based violence in public spaces.

Final Thoughts

Tackling the issue of violence against women in transportation systems is a complex challenge that requires a comprehensive and collaborative approach. It’s not just about making physical improvements to infrastructure, like better lighting and surveillance, but also about enhancing the training and awareness of staff who are integral to the daily operation of these systems. Public awareness campaigns play a critical role in changing societal attitudes and encouraging bystander intervention. 

The incorporation of technology, such as safety apps and reporting tools, adds an innovative layer of protection and empowerment for passengers. Legal frameworks need to be robust and effectively enforced, ensuring that perpetrators of violence are held accountable. Equally important is the collaboration with women’s groups, who bring invaluable insights and advocacy to the table. By addressing these areas, we are not just improving transportation systems; we are working towards creating an environment where women can travel without fear, an essential step towards gender equality and balance in our transportation systems.

If you’d like to learn more about the women industry leaders within our network, you should check out our Women in Shared Mobility directory. In it, you will find 2020 to 2023 interview summaries, links to webinars and contact information for the women we interviewed in our network.

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