​Smart measures in transport: Moving beyond women’s-only buses

This page in:
Civil society has been dealing with the problem of sexual harassment in public spaces in innovative ways. Creative marketing campaigns are popping all over the world, including Take Back the Metro in Paris, Chega de Fiu Fiu in Brazil, and Hollaback in 84 cities around the world.
The problem seems to stem from strong, ingrained cultural beliefs. Unfortunately, the problem might be getting stronger as formal barriers to the participation of women decline, as suggests Marty Langelan, a World Bank consultant, professor of American University.

Bus operators receive harassement
response training.
Specialists know that the complexity of the problem requires changes in social norms, and that this can only come from comprehensive approaches and time. Some governments may acknowledge the same; however, they still have to deal with the pressing urgency of the theme, and therefore adopt quick, pragmatic solutions.

Currently, countries like Mexico, Brazil, India, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, and Nepal all have some form of women-only cars in public transportation.

While there are strong arguments that these women-only cars are effective temporary solutions, in the long-term they could reinforce the stereotypes of uncontrollable men and victimized women. They also remind us of the United States Supreme Court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson, which considered constitutional segregated black and white populations in public facilities under the idea of “separate but equal.”

Some cities, however, seem to be ready for something more; the World Bank has been working for eight months on a promising approach in Mexico City. The city faces high levels of harassment in public transport, and 65 percent of women suffer from gender-based violence in transit vehicles and public spaces related to transportation. Mexico City is currently in the midst of a transport reform and dealing with the problem is improving service for more than half of its customers.

The project is called Hazme el Paro (an informal way of saying “help” or “have my back”) and has involved local and international feminist organizations, specialists in social norms and behavior change, app developers, and urban transport organizations such as Embarq and the Institute for Transportation and Development Policy.  While this project is being implemented as a pilot for now, there is an evaluation component conducted by George Washington University that will support the design of a larger-scale project. A local transport company has signed on to help with the pilot phase, by agreeing to implement the interventions in some of its buses.

The strategy consists of three main interventions:
  • A marketing campaign that creates a sense of community and states a strong, united opposition to sexual harassment against women
  •  A smartphone app to facilitate reporting and improve diagnosis, and
  • A consistent awareness community training on non-confrontational ways of stopping harassment in public transport.
These trainings include bus drivers and operators, police and civil society in general.

This past week was especially important to the process. First, we trained the trainers, using the SHARP training program (Sexual Harassment Appropriate Response Program), developed by Marty Langelan and Associates. Then the trainers “Mexicanized” the method – not only by interpretation of the manual, but also by adapting it to local custom and context. Finally, we conducted the drivers’ training, with a strong interactive approach. This included asking them what non-confrontational strategies they could think of to help prevent harassment in public transport.

The team excitement is visible. Thinking that one can improve public transportation and contribute to a more equal society gives us constant fuel. With each focus group, data collection or meeting with a new non-governmental organization, the energy level goes up.
For the World Bank transport team, the process requires a lot of non-quantitative methods, partnerships and extreme energy for interaction with stakeholders. But if, as some transport researchers suggest, “Smart Measures” in transport are one way to go, they should include a gender component in the hall of solutions. Otherwise, we are in danger of seeing a continuous decrease in public transport market share, especially when countries start improving income levels.

Harassers cause significant harm not only to transit passengers, but to the viability of public transit as a whole. We must not let them dictate our present and future. We must find solutions to make public transportation safe for everyone. 


Bianca Bianchi Alves

Urban Transport Specialist, World Bank

Join the Conversation

The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly
Remaining characters: 1000