Actually, No: Women-Only Transportation Won’t End Harassment

Sex segregation on buses and subways won’t work in the U.K. or any other country, according to one expert.

Japanese women on subway. (Photo: Aurelio Asiain/Flickr)

Aug 31, 2015· 3 MIN READ
Holly Kearl is the author of three books including "Stop Global Street Harassment: Growing Activism Around the World." She is also the founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment and a consultant for the U.N. and Aspen Institute.

Last week, U.K. Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn revealed an end street harassment plan. Among his suggestions include ones that I support—such as running public awareness campaigns and ensuring that public safety concerns are represented and addressed by local and national political leaders—and one in particular that I do not: women-only public transportation. I’m not alone, and the suggestion has generated heated debate in the U.K. and beyond.

Street harassment has long been considered a compliment or a minor annoyance; something people should just “get over.” But many groups and people are now disagreeing with this characterization. Corbyn is the latest high-profile person to say it is a serious issue. While it’s wonderful he is acknowledging that street harassment is a problem, he wrote that he would consider women-only public transportation, an idea he said “some women have raised with me.” I find this problematic.

Women-only public transportation is a topic I have researched and thought about a lot as the founder of the nonprofit Stop Street Harassment, as a U.N. consultant for the Safe Cities Global Initiative, and as the author of a master’s thesis and three books about street harassment.

From unwanted sexual comments on the street to groping on the subway, street harassment is a global problem that limits harassed persons’ ability to safely and comfortably navigate through public spaces.

Sex segregation on public transit is not a new idea. Because sexual harassment in public spaces is so prevalent, major cities in more than 15 countries have it. Countries with women-only bus services include Bangladesh, Guatemala, India, Indonesia, Mexico, Pakistan, Thailand, and the United Arab Emirates. Women-only subway cars or sections of trains are found in countries including Brazil, Egypt, Iran, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, Nepal, and Russia.

When I attended a United Nations forum on safe cities issues in Delhi, India, in June, there were people from several countries who voiced support for women-only public transportation.

A 2014 YouGov poll conducted in 16 major cities, which found that sexual harassment is a problem in them all, also found that nearly 70 percent of women surveyed would feel safer in single-sex areas on buses and trains. Women in Manila were most in favor of single-sex transport (94 percent), followed by Jakarta, Mexico City, and Delhi. In contrast, women in New York saw the least need for it (35 percent supported it), followed by women in Moscow, London, and Paris.

No doubt when you face extreme crowds and constant harassment, anything that offers respite will sound appealing. I thought so too during a 2012 trip to Cairo when I rode alone in both the mixed-gender and women-only subway cars.

But there are notable issues with the concept and the execution of it that cause me to advocate for other solutions.

First, women-only public transportation assumes sex and gender are binary and does not consider LGBTI individuals. It also does not account for men’s experiences with sexual harassment and assault—which, while less common, does still happen. This is especially true for men who are or perceived to be gay, bisexual, queer, transgender, and/or effeminate.

Second, the sex-segregation policy does not prevent men from harassing women at subway platforms or bus stops. Pallavi Kamat, a 2013 Stop Street Harassment blog correspondent, wrote about experiencing and witnessing this in Mumbai, India: “Women continue to face harassment as they board the daily train. This could be in the form of the men’s compartment adjacent to the women’s compartment from which there is cat-calling and verbal harassment. Oftentimes, as a train stops at a particular station, the men on the platform pass lewd comments and whistle at women.”

Thus, freedom from harassment in the women-only cars is not even guaranteed. In both Delhi and Cairo, it is not uncommon for women to have to shoo away men trying to ride in their space.

Third, not all women can use these public transport options, as they are often only offered during rush hour, on the major bus lines, and in a few subway cars, leaving many women to fend for themselves in mixed-sex cars. In 2010 in Japan, women vented during a street harassment workshop that sex-segregation “doesn’t solve anything.” One woman said, “Women who choose to not travel by ladies-only coaches are seen as fair game sometimes. The ‘why are they here if not to be felt up’ logic.”

Fourth, it does not address the root issue of why harassment is happening and thus does not solve the problem. It simply places the onus on women to protect themselves instead of on harassers to stop their behavior. Notably, a decade after Tokyo launched women-only subway cars, the 2014 YouGov poll ranked Tokyo among the top five cities in the world for the most physical harassment on public transportation.

As Julie Babinard, a senior transport specialist from the World Bank, said last year, “Women-only initiatives are not likely to provide long-term solutions as they only segregate by gender and provide a short-term remedy instead of addressing more fundamental issues.”

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I applaud any person, including politicians like Corbyn, who wants to address street harassment. It is a complicated, pervasive issue that has been seen as normal for a long time. But instead of sex segregation, I suggest what I know is a harder ask: Start with education in schools about all forms of sexual harassment, about respect, consent, and what one’s rights are if one faces harassment.

We need public service campaigns encouraging communities to not tolerate harassment and to speak out when friends, family, and colleagues engage in inappropriate behavior. And we also need media outlets and companies to stop portraying street harassment as a joke or compliment in television shows, movies, songs, and advertising.

It will be a long road to completely shift the normalization of sexual harassment, but that road will be even longer if we add a detour to implement the Band-Aid solution of women-only public transportation.