Anti-harassment campaigns unite transport systems to change behavior worldwide.

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Photo: Henrik Berger Jørgensen / Flickr

France is the latest country to have announced a public awareness campaign in an effort to reduce sexual harassment in public transport. The campaign includes posters and a video with fictitious comments reflecting examples of inappropriate remarks that women hear while using today’s public transport. The public awareness campaign is part of a national plan to combat sexual harassment and echoes similar campaigns in other major cities, including New York and London. (Read story here)

Owing in part to national and global reports that have provided increasing evidence on the importance of the problem, public transport authorities and local officials are finally taking notice of sexual harassment. It is only recently that sexual harassment in public transport has risen at the forefront of policy discussions and has been exposed as a global problem. Alarming findings last year from a poll taken by the Thomson Reuters Foundation reported on the world’s most dangerous systems for women. (Click here to discover more about the poll). The poll conducted in 15 of the world's largest capitals and in New York, the most populous city in the United States, concluded that six in 10 women in major Latin American cities had been physically harassed while using transport systems, with Bogota, Colombia, found to have the most unsafe public transportation, followed by Mexico City and Lima, Peru.

Several approaches have been considered to curb sexual harassment of women in public transport, ranging from setting up CCTV on platforms and improving lighting to launching women-only initiatives. Yet, there is no silver bullet for dealing with gender-based violence in transportation and urban settings. Options such as women only forms of transport have shown that segregating by gender are neither cost effective nor do they address the fundamental issues that trigger harassment.  

The worldwide menace of sexual harassment does not limit itself to public transport networks but evolves around social and cultural norms that do not condone it and let it prevail in urban and public environments. It is therefore also for that reason that tackling these challenges in public transportation systems make sense. Women worldwide are less likely to own and use a car and more likely to use walk or use public transportation as their main mode of transport.  The perception of fear that women may have or experience in using public transportation can have a significant impact on their continued reliance on these systems. Instigating anti-harassment campaigns in public transport therefore makes sense.

Approaches to tackle harassment will likely need to combine multiple elements such as the use of public awareness campaigns to raise attention, the use of technology such as phone apps to report harassment and identify particular hot spots, and the focus on security improvements and enforcement mechanisms and providing incentives against engaging in inadequate behavior. An example of the use of this multiple approach is exemplified in the World Bank’s pilot ‘Hazme el Paro,’ which is Mexican slang for “watch my back.” The idea is to use a combination of technology, marketing and driver training to transform a 10-kilometer (6-mile) bus route connecting the city’s southern suburbs to its commercial core into a model of mixed-gender civility (See blog entry about it)

As we look for more examples to sustainably curb harassment in transport systems and public spaces, the increasing number of awareness campaigns may very well be a stepping stone for a global movement to change social and cultural norms against sexual harassment worldwide.


Julie Babinard

Senior Transport Specialist

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