“No one helps…nadie me hace el paro”; preventing violence against women in public transport.

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“As a young woman, I feel powerless and exposed when a man harasses me in the bus.  One feels more vulnerable because people don’t react to the situation.
No one helps… NADIE  ME HACE EL PARO.”
The above-mentioned quote comes from a sixteen-year-old girl who participated in one of the focus groups organized by the World Bank for a pilot project to prevent violence against women and girls (VAWG) in Mexico City’s public transport. What she and other women described about their experience was clear: when we are harassed no one does anything. The name of this pilot project reflects that: “Hazme el Paro” which is a colloquial expression in Mexico to say “have my back.”
Poster of the Campaign. 

The focus group discussion, part of an exercise to design a communication campaign, allowed us to discover that bystanders refrain from intervening not because of lack of will, but because they do not know what to do without putting themselves at risk. That’s when the project team saw a unique opportunity to try to give public transport users tools to enable them to become active interveners without violent confrontation.

The proposed intervention has three components:
  1. A marketing campaign, which provides information to bystanders about what they can do to interrupt harassment in a non-confrontational way
  2. Training for bus drivers on non-confrontational strategies for intervening when harassment occurs, and,
  3. A mobile application, which enables bus users to report when they are either victims of harassment or witnesses to it.
Once a passenger reports an event (ranging from verbal to physical abuse) and requests help, a system alert is created and the information is sent to the center of operations of the bus company and a progressive action protocol is followed. Action ranges from broadcasting a warning message through the sound system, to the driver actually stopping the bus and calling the police. Experience shows that just sending a message through the system makes people aware and creates public shame that contains the harassing behavior. 

This project was recently launched in Mexico City, and the impact will be rigorously evaluated. So far, the program design has generated relevant lessons for future interventions, including:
  • Involve local organizations in the project design and implementation. Working with local gender advocacy and transport NGOs allowed us to adapt our course on Sexual Harassment Appropriate Response Program (SHARP) to Mexico City’s social and cultural context.
  • Engage the private sector. An ICT company, for example, contributed to the initiative by providing Wi-Fi inside the buses.
  • Make campaigns appealing to the local culture. From our discussions with local NGOs and bus users, we agreed to use the phrase “Hazme el Paro” to capture the attention of the community instead of using technical language typically associated to informative campaigns. People were just more engaged when they heard messages with familiar or casual language.
  • Baseline surveys helped the design too. From our baseline survey with transport users, we identified that both men and women think that female passengers are harassed because they are “asking for it” (i.e. how they dress, look, or behave). The campaign also challenges that pervasive social norm, with the following message: “women don’t like it; women don’t ask for it.”
  • Participatory projects create ownership. Ownership is essential when engaging on projects that touch upon sensitive issues like harassment. After an awareness-raising session, for example, the drivers created their own Action Protocol to intervene in non-confrontational ways to address sexual harassment cases. They saw themselves as key actors of the project, enhancing their commitment.
  • Pilot programs are apparently easier to implement with the formalized transport sector. The coordination of the bus drivers or installation of Wi-Fi equipment in the buses would not have been possible without a centralized management. These pilot projects have the added value of generating lessons that will enable a push for broader implementation.
  • Take risks and innovate. Different forms of segregated or women only modes of transportation have been designed for cities around the world. While these can be a quick solution, long lasting strategies are much more needed.
Engaging male drivers has been a key element to prevent violence against women and girls (VAWG) in Mexico City’s public transport.
Besides these lessons, we also identified important challenges:
  1. Be sensitive to organizational concerns. From the focus groups with the bus drivers, it was clear that to trigger a behavioral change in them and turn them into interveners, some of their working conditions also needed to be improved. The challenge was to help them deal with these issues without alienating the bus company, which has been a key partner for the pilot project.
  2. Changing norms and attitudes takes time. Behavioral change is not quickly attainable. For countries like Mexico where patriarchy is still very strong, there is need to create interventions to change norms, attitudes and behavior; this is why engaging different stakeholders is essential. Training for drivers and bus company staff should be frequent, but also key for the surrounding community.
  3. Scaling up and sustainability. It was easy to engage the bus company to participate in the project. They understood the relevance of it but also their marginal cost was almost zero. Therefore, if we are to scale up the pilot,  the bus company should see the real economic benefit of doing so; thus providing the private sector with a business case can be a good entry point.
  4. What works vs. what is normatively correct? One of the posters makes reference to a girl that says “Hazme el Paro! I could be your daughter!” This kind of message can be controversial as all girls and women have the right to a life free of violence, regardless of whether they are a “daughter, mother or sister”. However, when tested, this message clearly worked for the drivers and the male bus users. It is then advisable to test all the different messages before they are publicly used.
We look forward to the final evaluation results of this pilot and are willing to build on our learning regarding what works and what doesn’t to address violence against women and girls in public transport. We are certain that this experience can be valuable to other cities with similar contexts


Bianca Bianchi Alves

Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

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