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Understanding the Extent of Sexual Harassment on a Global Scale

Author: Tanu Pryia Uteng

2 Minute Read

Drawing on examples from around the globe, we frame a basic understanding on the topic of sexual harassment in public transport. Although we have seen an advance in equality and empowerment for women in the last decades, there remains numerous challenges to be addressed in terms of women’s mobility. Despite its high incidence within the public realm in different countries, this issue has not been studied in a structured manner, and even less so in cities of low-income countries.

A large-scale survey of street harassment in 42 cities around the world in 2015 revealed that approximately 84% (from a sample of 16,600 female respondents spread across the world) had experienced street harassment for the first time before they were 17 years old [18]. A study conducted in 2012 in Quito, Ecuador as part of their UN Women Safe City program revealed that over 65% percent of women have experienced it. In India, 91% of women felt that public transport was very unsafe, unsafe or somewhat unsafe [19]. In Loukaitou and Ceccato’s recent book [20], the Lagos (Nigeria) case study found that female college students were 2.2 times more likely to experience non-verbal sexual violence than males. Only 5% of students reported always feeling safe walking to/waiting at the bus/keke napep (tricycle) or motorcycle taxi stops after dark. About a third (31%) of the students had never felt safe walking to the transport stops at night, and about one- fifth (21%) rarely felt safe. Loukaitou-Sideris [10] examined the relationship between the built environment and women’s fear of public transportation systems and compiled a comprehensive literature review, based on examples drawn primarily from the US, on “fear of transit /public transport”. Their review highlighted that safety concerns have strong contextual determinants—public lighting, characteristics of sidewalks, isolation and neighbourhood characteristics.

She Can - woman checking phone on bus

Further, perceptions of insecurity vary in different urban environments—at the bus and rail stations, on their way to and from the bus and rail stations. Another study by Quinones [21] highlights the ways in which women in Bogotá, Colombia, experienced sexual harassment in public spaces with special reference to public transport (inside vehicles, on stations / stops and walking routes to and from their origins or destination). Effectively, it is argued by Quinones, that there are three main sections of any journey where women are at risk – (i) the ‘first’ and ‘last’ mile, (ii) public transport waiting areas and (iii) in vehicle (road or rail-based). It is also clear that women develop individual strategies to avoid the risk of harassment, these include changing journey times and routes, only travelling in daylight, travelling in groups, and requesting someone to meet them at the bus/rail stop to name a few. It is important to note that though women have developed coping mechanisms or personal strategies to address existing risks, this can include that they also choose not to travel at all. In one of the most extensive international surveys on the topic, it was found that over 82% of the respondents reported taking a different route home/to their destination to avoid GBVAH [18]. This is confirmed in various studies [9;22].

The Flone Initiative, a Nairobi based NGO, investigated incidents of violence against women and girls (VAWG) in Nairobi’s public transport system and found it to be widespread across all the routes studied. Seventy-three percent of the managers, 44% of operators and 88% of commuters had heard of or witnessed cases of VAWG on their respective routes, with most incidents occurring at bus stations and in vehicles. This is confirmed by Mwangi [23], who further elaborates that the most common form of violence against women in Nairobi on the popular form of informal public transport, matatus4, was abusive language (26%), indecent touch (23.3%) and physical harassment (20%). Importantly, the main category of aggressors was reported to be matatu crews (87%). Victims of gender-based violence in matatus were also often found to be silent spectators, reflecting a lack of protocols for raising complaints, and limited faith in the law enforcement agencies to tackle issues of gender-based violence (ibid).

According to a study conducted by the Women Empowerment Link (WEL) in 2015 on the prevalence of violence against female commuters in Kenya, the most cited forms of harassment were the use of derogatory language by bus crews, coercion of passengers to board public service vehicles against their wishes and unwelcome touching of female passengers.

Additionally, women’s fear of harassment in daily travels has strong intersectional dimensions. Intersectionality in this context refers to how aspects like race, age, class, cultural and educational background, sexual orientation, disability status, participation in paid labour force, home-based or employment in informal sector etc. overlap and create variegated landscapes of fears and opportunities. A recent study from Bogotá [21] confirms this issue as intersections with age and class were found to play a very important role in experiences of sexual harassment in public transport and public spaces. Finally, the same study notes that policies proposed so far in Bogotá have been unsuccessful in reducing sexual harassment in public transport and, in many cases, do not tackle the problem.


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An Introduction to the Issue of Sexual Harassment in Public Transport

The simple act of ‘stepping outside’ the residential quarters is often linked to fear – from a young age, girls are taught to avoid walking on certain streets after certain hours; being alone in certain areas/neighbourhoods; wearing certain types of clothing.

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Passenger-driven approaches to address sexual harassment in public transport

Over time, several bottom-up strategies have emerged to protect female public transport passengers from sexual harassment. Although effective in terms of managing personal risks, these strategies come at a high cost to personal freedom and access to opportunities for the women who employ them.


9. Lennon T., S. Lennon and K. Johnson (1993), Is Clothing Probative of Attitude or Intent - Implications for Rape and Sexual Harassment Cases, Minnesota Journal of Law & Inequality, Volume 11 (2), 391 published by the University of Minnesota Libraries Publishing.

10. Vanderschuren, M., S. Phayane and A. Gwynne-Evans (2019), Perceptions of Gender, Mobility, and Personal Safety: South Africa Moving Forward, Transport Research Record, pp 1-12, DOI: 10.1177/0361198119854087

18. Hollaback! and The ILR School. Street Harassment: The Largest International Cross-Cultural Study [Internet]. 2015.

19. Shah, S. and Raman, A. What Do Women and Girls want from Urban Mobility Systems? Ola Mobility Institute; 2019.

20. Loukaitou-Sideris, A., Ceccato, V. Sexual violence in transit environments: Aims, scope, and context. V. Ceccato and A. Loukaitou-Sideris, (Eds.) Transit Crime and Sexual Violence in Cities: International Evidence and Prevention. Abingdon: Routledge; 2020.

21. Quinones, L.M. Sexual harassment in public transport in Bogotá. Transportation Research Part A: Policy and Practice 139, 54-69; 2020.

22. Borker G. Safety First: Perceived Risk of Street Harassment and Educational Choices of Women [Internet]. 2017.

23. Mwangi S.M. Gender Relations in Public Road Transport in Africa. Master thesis, Institute of Diplomacy and International Studies: University of Nairobi; 2011.