Header banner MUST have an alt or title

An Introduction to the Issue of Sexual Harassment in Public Transport

Author: Tanu Pryia Uteng

2 Minute Read

Across the world, women face real and perceived threats of gender-based violence, assault, and harassment (GBVAH) while negotiating their daily travel. Further, increasing urbanisation along with trends in single women-led households, feminization of urban slums, etc. create intersecting layers of disadvantage.

It is an established fact that women and girls are subjected to varying degrees of gender-based violence, assault, and harassment (GBVAH) in accessing public spaces across the globe. The intersection between accessing opportunities, public spaces, and transport is tightly interwoven and cannot be analysed separately. Studies have repeatedly shown that sexual harassment on public transport is widespread in both the developed and developing parts of the world [1,2,3,4,5]. The existence of this phenomenon, thus, remains undisputed.

To quote a few examples, 55% of women reported that they were concerned about traveling to educational institutions after dark in Kigali, Rwanda [6]. In Kenya, 54% of women interviewed in 2015 said they had experienced some form of gender-based violence while using public transportation. And a staggering 99% of the women surveyed in the UN Women study in 2013 in Egypt had experienced sexual harassment, most commonly touching or groping, which involved harassment in public spaces inclusive of public transport and streets. The study showed that public transport and the general street environment were both vulnerable areas. Almost 70 percent of women in a survey conducted by the EBRD in 2016 [7] were dissuaded from using the train to commute to work because of safety concerns in Egypt. These concerns were mostly a response to a high incidence of sexual harassment in public transport. For Mexico City, it has been reported that institutional programs had a limited effect on stopping abusive behaviour and sexual harassment of women in the public transit system, and 65 percent of female riders who had been targeted and victimised continued to be reluctant to report incidents [8]. In Buenos Aries, 89% of the women interviewed had experienced sexual harassment on public transport; almost half of the women interviewed had been harassed in the year prior to the survey [9].

She Can - woman checking phone on bus

These staggering numbers have elicited certain responses from the government at all levels but most of the governmental efforts have failed. For example, putting up CCTV cameras in public spaces has been a popular response. But there is a substantial body of work to show that CCTV cameras do not increase a feeling of security in women [3]. It has been found that such a lack of trust is due to a lack of follow-up protocols. If the images/videos captured in CCTVs are not monitored and do not help in preventing crime in real-time, then it becomes more of an assistive tool post-incident than a preventive tool. Given the lack of data, most governmental responses are not evidence-based but extract ideas from other contexts which might or might not be applicable to their particular case.

Further, few transit agencies or policymakers have directly asked women riders about their safety needs or sought to identify women’s proposals and preferences regarding safe and secure travel.

The failures in achieving a substantial shift in how women face and perceive their personal safety intersects with how prevalent culture makes women feel safe or unsafe. Actions like teasing, groping, etc. have sadly become an integral part of the way many men behave in public spaces in a wide range of countries including both high- and low-income countries. Gendered norms, values, and consequently women’s presence in social spaces (inside vs. outside) are socially constructed and propagated. Such social environments have unfortunately sanctioned victimisation of women who are ‘outside’, and consequently, perceptions of safety and decisions on where and when to travel have been affected. The social environment that enables GBVAH cannot be addressed through transport planning and urban design alone, but the physicality of urban and transport structures plays a dominant role in encouraging or challenging the incidences of GBVAH. 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, the ignoring of which might lead to incidences of GBVAH, and effectively it becoming the victim’s fault. These instructions are repeatedly reinforced in the media and from family and friends, ultimately becoming embedded into the belief system of a society.

There is an existing continuum of harassment (visual, verbal, and physical) that may be almost invisible to men. This includes leering, sexual comments, harassment, photography, intimidation, groping, threats, and other nuisances or crimes with sexual undertones [11]. These acts of harassment against women in urban transport vary in their degree, spatiality, and temporality, ranging from sexual harassment, assault, or violence on city streets, at public transport stations to inside vehicles. These perceived and actual threats of violence have constrained female mobility to a great extent which not only has social ramifications but serious economic repercussions as well3. Another lacuna is also the fact that studies undertaken on the thematic area of ‘gender and transport’ in Sub-Saharan Africa, to date, have primarily focussed on the travel of rural women and girls and the main issues have converged on lack of infrastructure and poverty [12, 13, 14]. Women’s personal security and safety concerns, tackling mechanisms, and implications remain both under-studied and under-recognised.


Click here to see bla bla

Understanding the Extent of Sexual Harassment on a Global Scale

Across the world, women face real and perceived threats of gender-based violence, assault, and harassment (GBVAH) while traveling. Studies have repeatedly shown that sexual harassment on public transport is widespread in both the developed and developing parts of the world

Click here to see bla bla

Passenger Driven Approach

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.


1. Tonkiss F. Space, the City and Social Theory. Social Relations and Urban Forms. Cambridge: Polity; 2005.

2. Potgieter, C., Pillay R., Rama s., (2006) Women, development and transport in rural Eastern Cape, South Africa.

3. Allen, H. and M. Vanderschuren (2016), Safe and Sound – International Research on Women’s Personal Safety on Public Transportation, FIA Foundation Research Series, Paper 6, London (UK).

4. Vanderschuren M. and H. Allen (2015), Women Security using Public Transport Services, 1st Homicide Conference, 3-4 September 2015, Cape Town (SA).

5. Prendergrast, M. Plan it safe:From wasteland to heartland. Liverpool: Crime Prevention Division; 2006.

6. Verma M., Manoj M., Rodeja N., Verma A. Service Gap Analysis of Public Buses in Bangalore With Respect to Women Safety, Transportation Research Procedia 25, 4322-4329; 2017.

7. Borker G. Safety First: Perceived Risk of Street Harassment and Educational Choices of Women [Internet]. 2017. Available at: https://girijaborker.files.wordpress.com/2017/11/borker_jmp.pdf

8. Uteng, T.P., H. Allen, J. Turner, L. Cristea, L. Pickup and P. Curtis (2021), EMPOWER Literature Review, This research was funded by UKAID through the UK Foreign, Commonwealth & Development Office under the High Volume Transport Applied Research Programme, managed by IMC Worldwide.

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

11. Negro´ n-Blanco, L., J. de Pedro-Cuesta, J. Almaza´ n, C. Rodrı´guez-Bla´zquez, E. Franco, and J. Damia´ n. Prevalence of and Factors Associated with Homebound Status among Adults in Urban and Rural Spanish Population, on Behalf of the DISCAP-ARAGON Research Group. BMC Public Health, Vol. 16, p. 574.

12. Sideris A.L., Fink, C. Addressing Women's Fear of Victimization in Transportation Settings. Urban Affairs Review 44, 554-587; 2008.