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Passenger-driven approaches to address sexual harassment in public transport

Author: Tanya Visser; Marianne Vanderschuren

2 Minute Read

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. They should be regarded as a response to the problem, not a solution to it.

Scheduling of Journeys

The simple act of ‘stepping outside’ a person’s residential quarters is often linked to fear – it is not uncommon for girls to be taught to avoid walking on certain streets from a young age.1 A number of studies have demonstrated that women develop safety strategies for travel by either restricting the places they go to and/or the times they travel - women’s travel patterns are strongly influenced by the need to avoid danger. [2,3] Transport during off-peak times is seen as particularly dangerous for women.4 A study in a bus station area of Liverpool, United Kingdom, found that many avoided the station whenever they could, especially outside peak traveling times, due to a lack of ‘eyes on the area’ and at night because it is dark. [5] This strategy effectively places a curfew on women and prohibits them from being economically or socially active during certain parts of the day.

Routing and modal preference decisions

Women's perceptions of safety while traveling on public transport influences their modal preference. Personal safety concerns cause women to shift from public transport to less sustainable, private modes of travel. [6] Often, women make decisions on where they go or which jobs they accept based on feelings of safety. [6] A study in Delhi shows that girls are willing to go to less-resourced and reputable colleges if they can use a safer route to avoid sexual harassment. [7] Thus, the lack of safety has repercussions that extend beyond acts of violence. [6] A study in a bus station area of Liverpool, UK, confirmed that particular stations are avoided.5 Avoidance of other areas including underpasses, pedestrian subways, and many underground transit systems gets overlooked often. [8] Dark, desolate underpasses carve out conditions for targeting women. Further, weak or absent mobile phone signals in underground stations can make one feel disconnected, vulnerable, and unsafe. [8] Self-preservation strategies that avoid certain modes of transport or certain routes in a network limit a woman or girl’s ability to move around freely or even with the most economical or time-efficient transportation option, with consequent repercussions.

Changing appearance when travelling

Although contentious and highly undesirable, girls are taught to avoid wearing certain types of clothing, as this could be seen as an invitation to perpetrators. [1] This is confirmed in the literature. Legislative case literature quoted a jury making statements, such as "She asked for it. The way she was dressed with that skirt you could see everything she had. She was advertising for sex” [9] and "We felt she was up to no good [by] the way she dressed". [9] A recent study found that 80% of South African Women report changing their clothing because of harassment. [3] This response to potential harassment while traveling limits a female’s freedom of choice and expression in a manner not applicable to their male counterparts.

Not travelling alone

From a young age, girls are taught to avoid being alone in certain areas/neighbourhoods. [1] Several strategies have emerged from female travellers to improve their sense of safety whilst in transit. In Cape Town, female passengers often meet up with the same people while traveling. Over time, people will start keeping an eye out for each other. If they are planning not to travel the next day, they will let other passengers know so that those passengers can plan accordingly, and not worry unnecessarily. [10] Focus group discussions in Cape Town revealed that users of minibus taxis and buses, especially female travelers, combat harassment risks by traveling in pairs or with the same passengers every day. [10] This limits these ladies’ freedom of movement, and, thus, their economic, academic, or social potential.

Choosing not to travel

International studies on gender-based travel patterns have revealed the tendency to stay home and avoid travel is more prevalent among females. [10,11] Percentages of trip avoidance vary between 10% and 20%. [10,11] According to a UK Department for Transport survey, an extra 10.5 % of public transport journeys would be generated if people felt more secure while traveling, particularly while waiting at the stations. [12] African case studies partners in EMPOWER confirm that this is as a big issue in other African cities as well, marginalising women as a result. [8]


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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.

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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, the ignoring of which might lead to incidences of GBVAH, and effectively it becoming the victim’s fault.


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

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