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Because there are more of us who want this to stop… Our experience taking on gender-based violence in public transport

Shomik Mehndiratta's picture
Also available in: Español
Follow the authors on Twitter: @shomik_raj and @aldotudela7
 
The room was quiet. The group sat, thoughtful, each one of the participants with their heads around a complicated issue, silent. Suddenly, one man stood up and spoke out, “We have to set something straight, there are more of us who want this to stop”. This sentiment, expressed during a focus group in Mexico City, has become a powerful anchor for an ongoing initiative we are undertaking to understand and address gender-based violence in public transport.

Personal security on and around Mexico City’s public transport system is a serious problem that frames the travel experience for many, particularly for women. A recent report by the Mexico City Women’s Institute showed that 65% of women using the system have suffered some form of sexual assault while on the system or when accessing it. However, there is little argument that only a fraction of these events are reported… which leads us to believe that the actual percentage could be much higher.
 
Assessing the situation: what Mexico City public transport users and operators told us about gender-based violence

In order to characterize and understand the issue, we carried out a combination of interviews, workshops and focus group discussions of drivers and passengers (both male and female) inspired by a “human- centered design approach”. The information we gathered confirmed existing knowledge: only about a fifth of incidents are reported to the authorities, and informal minibuses are considered the venue that leaves women most vulnerable. The discussions also allowed us to gain some valuable new insights on the following aspects:

  1. “It is rare to find empathy among strangers”. Sexual harassment is not just prevalent, it is often visible to many, and while most feel uncomfortable with it, the threshold at which ‘strangers on a bus’ become a peer community and stand up against the assailant is only when physical violence occurs or is imminent. Drivers and passengers alike made this point in various ways and in one of our workshops, small groups of passengers tried to come up with possible solutions to address the issue. Among the different options that were discussed, participants contemplated media social marketing campaigns as a way to encourage passengers to proactively talk, create a peer community, and “reclaim public spaces”.

  2. “It is a waste of time to complain.” “It is too hard.” There was a pervasive sentiment that complaining about gender-based violence to government authorities is not worth the effort because it is too cumbersome and does not result in any tangible outcome.That said, when asked to design solutions, two of four groups focused on ways to make the reporting of incidents easier and more accurate – suggesting that precise information on the timing and location of incidents would be of value to the police, and would also help users make informed decisions on how to minimize personal risks.  Not surprisingly, there was a lot of attention here to technology, and to the role mobile phones could play in facilitating the reporting process and seeking help.

  3. “Segregation is not a solution”. One of the city government’s primary responses to gender-based violence in public transport was the creation of dedicated sections for women and children on the metro and BRT systems (many other cities in Latin America and globally have taken similar measures).  In addition, the government-owned bus company (RTP) has launched “Atenea“ services exclusively for women on a few routes. However, most members of the sample group felt that segregation was “little more than a band-aid” – an unsatisfactory solution that penalized the victims and did not adequately address the underlying cultural context and inappropriate behaviors.

  4. “I feel safer” when there is higher quality service and infrastructure. The respondents consistently associated higher quality public transit with a safer experience. Proposed enhancements included better protocols to respond to user complaints, improved infrastructure (particularly platforms and corridors), along with the replacement of informal minibuses with formalized services that would include cameras and policemen on board. The challenge will be to figure out how to significantly increase service quality when and where passengers are the most vulnerable to security concerns, particularly gender-based violence.  While there is no denying that service and infrastructure enhancements are needed (the city government has indeed ambitious plans that include formalization, and infrastructure upgrades) – the pace of change is dependent on a range of financial constraints and institutional complexity.  In that context, the immediate priority is to identify quick wins, i.e. cost-effective service improvements that could significantly improve security outcomes.
Thinking outside the box: quick wins and long-term improvements

Based on these findings, we are now working with the local government, NGOs and some of the private operators to pilot a series of potential solutions:

  • A combination of measures – social marketing, communication campaigns, training and technology aids – to encourage public transit users to unite against perpetrators when they witness gender-based incidents.

  • Mobile phone-based solutions, such as Harassmap in Cairo and circle of 6, with a focus on solutions that can be used by smartphone as well as non-smartphone users. Extended as far as possible to non-smartphones and hosted by NGOs that would focus primarily on providing the information to empower users, and only secondarily to local authorities.

  • Designing niche services such as services that offer scheduled door-to-door public transport options on particular routes at night  – based on innovative services such as Kutsuplus in Helsinki and Night School in the San Francisco Bay Area.
We are hopeful that these efforts will make a difference. We are working with an academic team to design an impact analysis, looking for funding opportunities to accelerate implementation, and constantly talking to potential partners and collaborators.  If you are interested in the issue and have ideas on things we should try and things we could have done differently, we would love to hear suggestions!

This work is being conducted with support from the Energy Sector Management Assistance Program (ESMAP).

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