It’s 8am at Oxford Circus tube station and the Central line platforms are teeming with people. Stony-faced business types, rucksack-touting tourists and yawning schoolchildren jostle for space in the rush-hour crush.
But among the crowds of commuters is another group waiting to board the train – a covert patrol of plainclothed officers looking to catch sexual predators in the act.
New research has found that reports of sexual harassment on the London underground have soared by 42% in the last four years. Sadly, it’s a problem on public transport the world over – from the buses of Hanoi to the New York subway.
“We know that offenders in every city will target public transport systems as a place to commit offences because of the opportunity it provides,” says Mandy McGregor, head of policing and community safety for Transport for London, which is deploying the undercover officers as part of its Project Guardian scheme.
“Crowded trains allow offenders to evade detection as they can claim it was accidental or a result of the movement of a vehicle. Women may not know who has assaulted them, particularly during rush hour, and may not react because they are trapped or feel embarrassed to say anything. Groping or touching is the most prevalent offence reported, but we’re also seeing relatively new offences such as upskirting and viewing pornography while on public transport.”
TfL has also rolled out the Report It to Stop It initiative, which encourages people to report offences by text message. Similarly, in 2017 the Los Angeles Metro launched Off-Limits, a 24-hour hotline for reporting sexual harassment staffed by trained counsellors. And the OnDuty app by Metro Vancouver allows passengers to text police and transport officers directly, as well as giving them access to reports on crime hotspots and summaries of crimes around particular stations.
“International evidence suggests that the most effective interventions on public transport adopt a combination of different approaches,” says McGregor. “We need to make it harder for potential offenders to offend, give victims the means and confidence to report, and create a culture where sexual harassment is not tolerated.”
But clearly in most cities there’s still a long way to go. A 2018 report by the humanitarian NGO Plan International found that sexual harassment is the number-one safety risk facing girls and young women across the world, with Lima considered the most dangerous city of those surveyed for women to use public transport and Stockholm the safest.
In separate research, Plan also asked women and girls in five cities (Delhi, Kampala, Lima, Madrid and Sydney) to use geolocating to drop a “good” pin on locations they enjoy, and a “bad” pin on the places they feel unsafe or uncomfortable. Transport hubs, train and bus stations and bus stops were found to be prime locations for groping and harassment.
Similar crowd-mapping techniques have also been used by south Asia’s SafetiPin, India’s HarassMap, and the international Everyday Sexism project to suggest ideas for changes to key decision-makers in architecture, urban planning and public transport.
“Relentless sexual harassment and abuse is the daily norm for so many young women and girls on our city streets,” says Anne-Birgitte Albrectsen, CEO of Plan International. “We heard the same story in each of the five cities we surveyed: young women are frightened for their physical safety, and angry that this harassment and bullying is not taken seriously.
“Harassment should not be seen as part of a ‘normal’ life for girls and young women. It is not harmless fun. If we truly want to achieve gender parity in our urban environments we can make a start by changing the culture of the design and planning industries, by ensuring transport services take gender-sensitive approaches so that they reflect the needs of young women using them, by increasing the gender-parity of decision-making bodies, and by offering gender-sensitive training to key personnel so that they don’t trivialise girls’ concerns.”
In some cities, young women are taking matters into their own hands. In Hanoi, Vietnam, 10,000 young women travel by bus every month, and 40% of girls say they seldom or never feel safe on public transport in the city.
“On the bus, mobile phones are being stolen and girls are being harassed,” says My, 17, who uses the bus to travel to school. “A friend was touched and when she objected, she was thrown out of the bus into the street, but the boys were allowed to continue their trip.”
My is part of Plan International’s youth media project and has created four comic books dealing with the subject of harassment on buses, to be distributed at bus stops and ticket offices. “Our comic booklets advise caution,” she says. “In emergencies, bus drivers or ticket inspectors must help. They are responsible for security in the bus – many people do not know that.”
The organisation Hollaback! was created in 2005 in response to a photo snapped by a woman called Thao Nguyen of a man who masturbated in front of her on the New York subway. The photo went viral and led to the conviction of the perpetrator (“raw food guru” Dan Hoyt). “We started as a blog encouraging all women to ‘holla back’ at street harassers by taking cellphone pictures and posting them online,” says co-founder Emily May. “We’re now a global movement in 20 cities in 16 countries.”
A big part of Hollaback!’s work involves bystander intervention training. “Of course the police and the transit system have their role to play, but it’s also about what everyday people can do,” says May. “It doesn’t have to be this big Hollywood moment where you swoop in and destroy the perpetrator and say something witty and save the day.
“It can be as simple as asking someone ‘Are you OK?’ or just starting a conversation with the person you think is experiencing an assault. Sometimes this can be enough of a distraction to break the moment and just reassure the person experiencing it that they’re not alone. Small actions can add up to a big change in the culture.”
In Bangkok, the Theung Wela Pheuk (“Time to Intervene”) initiative is predicated on the belief that bystanders can prevent or deter harassment if they make a timely intervention. Similarly, the Tahadi Association in Casablanca, Morocco, launched a campaign in 2017 to encourage bystanders to intervene, in the wake of an incident where a gang of youths on a bus assaulted a disabled girl, filmed it and uploaded it online. The video went viral, leading to nationwide demonstrations demanding change, and the introduction of a law that punishes sexual harassment (taharrush) with jail time.
In some countries there are more extreme measures in place to curb harassment. In Mexico City – where 64% of women say they have been “groped or physically harassed” on public transport, according to a 2014 Reuters/YouGov poll – the #NoEsDeHombres (This Is Not What Being a Man Is About) campaign uses stunts to highlight situations commonly experienced by women on public transport. In 2017, commuters on the Mexico City Metro spotted a seat with a protruding plastic penis and male chest, with a sign on the floor saying: “It is annoying to travel this way, but not compared to the sexual violence women suffer in their daily commutes.”
Mexico City is one of several cities – also including Tokyo, Delhi and Rio de Janeiro – that provide women-only carriages on public transport. In India, where sexual abuse on public transport came to worldwide attention in 2012 with the gang-rape and murder of 23-year-old Jyoti Singh on a moving bus, there are Ladies’ Specials – entire trains reserved for female passengers. Malaysia has bright pink women-only buses and trains. But in many cases female-only cars are not enforced or widely used. In Jakarta, pink and orange female-only carriages were introduced in 2012 but scrapped after seven months because they were largely empty.
Many also feel that women-only carriages are a step backwards rather than a solution, one that puts the onus on women to change their behaviour. As Hollaback!’s May puts it: “Why do we need a separate carriage? Why can’t men just stop groping us?” Segregation also marginalises individuals from the LGBT community and those who have fluid or nonconforming gender identities.
Andrea Simon, head of public affairs for End Violence Against Women, says: “Whether it’s London or Lima, it’s not just about prevention, it’s about education. We need wider societal change about how men and women interact, and to teach young people that this behaviour isn’t acceptable. We’re pushing the government to include violence against women and girls in sex and relationship classes in schools.”
May believes public transport will be the next frontier of the #MeToo movement.
“Protocols are in place to ensure this behaviour doesn’t happen in the workplace,” she says. “But now people are looking around and saying: ‘OK, but maybe my commute to work isn’t safe’ or maybe: ‘My kid’s journey school isn’t safe.’ Now is the time for change.”
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