Uncovering and Responding to the Problem of Violence against Women and Girls in Transportation

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A metro train comes to a stop, as women sit inside the women-only compartment at a metro station in New Delhi, India.

Uncovering and Responding to the Problem of Violence against Women and Girls in Transportation

The United States joined the international community for the 63rd session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) from March 11 to 22. The priority theme for this year’s session was “social protection systems, access to public services, and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls.” CSW brings to the foreground forms of violence that prevent women from succeeding in the world of work. Violence against women and girls in public transportation often goes unnoticed, but it has a serious impact on women and girls.

In emerging economies and throughout the developed world public transportation is an essential component of infrastructure that helps women access both the formal and informal economy. But this access is not free from challenges. Recent research from the World Bank, Inter-American Development Bank, and others indicates that women in many cities around the world experience high levels of violence on public transportation. This violence ranges from unwanted touching and sexual assault, and may be preceded by elements of harassment including leering looks and offensive gestures.

Women and men also have different mobility needs. Men often travel alone, while women are more likely to be accompanied by small children or elderly persons. Women face barriers to the use of public transit because of limited route options, safety concerns, and the social stigma of traveling alone. These factors contribute to holding women back from fully participating in the economy. The International Labor Organization found that limited access to and safety of transport for women reduces the likelihood of women’s participation in the labor force by 16.5 percent in developing countries. A recent study by the McKinsey Global Institute shows show that closing the gender gap in labor markets could produce as much as$28 trillion – 26 percent – in annual GDP worldwide by 2025.        

The U.S. Department of State recognizes access to safe transportation as important to women’s participation in the labor force and has taken steps to address it. For instance, in 2015, the Secretary’s Office of Global Women’s Issues partnered with the cities of Santo Domingo and Portoviejo in Ecuador on the “Cities Free of Gender-based Violence” project that aimed to combat violence against women and girls in public spaces and public transit and provide women and girls with anti-Gender-based Violence (GBV) tools and information. According to project survey results, 81 percent of women surveyed in Santo Domingo and 50 percent of women surveyed in Portoviejo reported having been victims of GBV in public places. Approximately 75 percent of women surveyed in Portoviejo reported feeling fearful in public spaces. In Santo Domingo, 94 percent of women surveyed reported feeling unsafe and fearful to walk alone in streets or in public spaces. Throughout the project, we built the capacity of local governments and civil society organizations to provide technical expertise in the design of markets, transport systems, parks, and other public spaces to make them safer for women and girls. Infrastructure projects initiated as a result of this project included better streetlights, security cameras, and police emergency call buttons in public transit – all targeted to increase women’s – and indeed all residents’ – feelings of security after dark.

Initiatives in Ecuador allowed women to utilize their mobile phones for safety measures. Image courtesy of Quito Municipality

Ecuador’s capital city of Quito participated in the UN’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces project. According to municipality statistics, 91 percent of women in Quito report having experienced some type of aggression (verbal, physical, sexual, etc.) in a public space, more than 80 percent believe public transportation is unsafe, and 63 percent reported that they conclude all activities before 6 p.m. in order to be home before sundown. As a response to this problem, a new approach to municipal transportation in Quito led to the remodeling of 43 of 44 trolley stops. The new safety criteria included transparent glass corridors to provide safe and secure waiting areas. The Metropolitan Passenger Transport Company trained 600 staff members to assist survivors of harassment that may serve as a precursor to violence. Care services called “Bajale al acoso” (Stop the Harassment) were also created in five of the major metropolitan transportation stations. Furthermore, the municipal crime observatory was expanded to monitor and routinely collect data on sexual violence in public spaces. According to Quito’s municipal government, the campaign has decreased by 34.5 percent GBV in the public transportation system. Taking a comprehensive approach to violence against women and girls can help achieve real change.

An example of an advertisement for the "Bajelo al Acoso" campaign. Image courtesy of Quito Municipality.

The U.S. Department of state with the Department of Transportation and USAID have also been working through the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Transportation Working Group to increase women’s economic participation in the transportation sector. Since women typically account for less than 20 percent of the transportation labor force – gender diversity in the sector will have a positive impact on the end user. The U.S.-led Women in Transportation (WiT) Framework also highlights the importance of women’s access to transportation, with an emphasis on safety. When you have more women in all aspects of the industry, from decision makers and engineers – responsible for the planning, design, operation, and management of transportation systems – to transportation operators interfacing with customers on bus routes and metro lines, women’s needs as transportation consumers will be better met.

Public transportation needs to be safe for both men and women because it is essential to an individual’s ability to participate in and contribute to the economy. Freedom of movement is paramount to women’s economic participation. The world economy is stronger when women are able to contribute their time, skills, and labor without facing the threat of violence.

About the Author: Gabbi Mucerino serves in the Secretary's Office of Global Women's Issues at the U.S. Department of State.