Take back public spaces

Saturday, 9 March 2019 00:10 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

To celebrate Women’s Day, the Transport Ministry has introduced a separate train carriage for women on selected lines with the aim of improving their safety. While the measure is well intentioned, it does little to address the overall problem and increase protection for women holistically. 

In December 2015, the United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) commissioned a national study on sexual harassment against women on public buses and trains in Sri Lanka. The study revealed that 90% of women have been subjected to sexual harassment at least once on public buses and trains.

This is hardly news to women, many of who can recount disturbing examples by the dozen. Constrained mobility can also limit a woman’s earning power and financial freedoms. Limiting her movements thereby limits her capacity to be independent and explore her potential. The easy answer might be segregation but when data shows that more than 50% of those using public transport are women the question then rises as to what happens to all the women who aren’t able to use a designated carriage. 

Sexual harassment in public transport spaces is not exclusive to Sri Lanka. Several nations, including India, Pakistan, Mexico, the UK, Japan, Malaysia, Egypt, Philippines and European Union states, have introduced segregated public transport or taxi services as a response to harassment.

Gender segregation is, however, only a short-term solution. It’s problematic in that it reinforces the gender stereotypes contributing to the societal causes of sexual violence.

At a fundamental level, segregation perpetuates a culture that blames victims and frames all men as threats to women. It’s a knee-jerk response that reinforces outdated power dynamics and erases the complexity of gender identity. It also does nothing to change behaviour, social attitudes or improve accountability. Women are having their rights broken every day but there is no enforcement of law to protect those rights. This is where the problem needs to be fixed.  

Society is now acknowledging how factors of race, age, disability, socioeconomic status, sexuality and gender intersect to influence the everyday lived experiences of people and there is an urgent need to rethink the approach to safety to reflect this understanding.

Currently, sexual harassment does not significantly influence the safety design of public transport environments. Instead, safety measures are generalised and gender-blind. But if Sri Lanka is to properly address this widespread issue, there is a need to include diverse voices in the conversation and conduct more research into how sexual harassment can be eliminated. With no concentrated effort that involves stakeholders more and more women are choosing to opt out of using public transport but this doesn’t solve the problem. It merely becomes yet another issue that is coloured by shades of class and gender. 

Recommendations for making public transport safer include introducing a helpline for complaints, train transport workers on how to identify and stop harassment, empower women and girls to speak out, encourage bystander intervention and actually implement Sri Lanka’s harassment laws. Perhaps the most important point is to increase involvement of police. In the South American city of Bogota, public transport harassment dropped sharply after female police officers started riding buses and trains in civilian garb. The number of persecutions also shot up. It’s time to become inventive and take back public spaces.