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Women-Only Transit: Not the Solution, But A Solution
Erica Barnett, 25 Jan 08


Sexual harassment is a maddeningly ubiquitous problem for female transit users in Mexico City, where subways and buses carry an estimated 22 million passengers every day. Women on the city's overcrowded buses face lecherous comments, groping, and worse. Efforts to stop sexual harassment on public buses have been futile; women report having men put hands up their skirts, kissing them, and following them off the bus.

Mexico City has long had "ladies cars" on subways during rush hour. This month, the city rolled out the first two of what will eventually be more than a dozen women-only buses; the buses are plainly marked with a pink (ugh) sign that says "WOMEN ONLY."

While "separate but equal" public accommodations raise legitimate concerns (will women get the oldest and least reliable buses? will segregating women from men be seen as legitimizing harassment on regular transit? does it create a false sense of security?), it's worth noting that the service originated with requests from women for a safer way to get around the city. Virtually all of the women quoted in stories about the buses speak positively of them, calling it a relief to be free from pinching, groping, and leering. "Traveling among women is so much more pleasant," one said. "With this type of transport, I can dress a little bit better, wear skirts without anyone bothering me," another added.

And women-only public transportation is hardly a radical or new idea: Japan rolled out its first all-female cars in 1912. In 2001, one of Japan's main train companies implemented a trial women-only rail car, and in 2005, Tokyo's subway system followed suit, after a survey revealed that nearly 64 percent of women in their 20s and 30s had been groped on trains, subways or transit stops. In Egypt, the first car on each train has been reserved for women since the early 1990. In Rio de Janeiro, women love the cars, saying they give them a rare opportunity to relax. Seoul, South Korea, plans to implement all-female trains next year.

True, women-only trains don't make harassment go away; nor do they protect women in other situations where they might be vulnerable, such as at work or walking down the street. However, systemic change is slow and often piecemeal. "Ladies' cars" are a simple solution to part of a larger, more complex problem, and will never be the whole solution. The problem won't be solved until separate facilities seem like a quaint, no longer necessary, anachronism.

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I've been on a few of those ladies-only carriages in Japan, and honestly I felt more unsafe in there than I have in mixed carriages.

The main thing is, there's no one or nothing stopping men from stepping in. One time I was coming home in the evening in a ladies-only carriage (this was my first time in such a carriage) and a sketchy guy came in. He sat in the seat behind me, so I could observe him through the reflection on the door I was facing. He was quite obviously checking me out - though that may also be because I look obviously foreign (I'm South Asian). He got off in the same stop as I, and I ran all the way through the station and ended up missing my host family! (I called them and they were in the station the whole time, haha).

I was once also in the carriage next door to a ladies carriage and there were men occupying the seats in the LADIES ONLY carriage while the women (some of whom had bags or were a bit older) had to stand.

Everyone's too polite to say anything, so they'd rather be unconfortable than tell the men to shoo.

At least in the mixed carriages you won't be so suspicious of any men that come on!

Posted by: Tiara on 26 Jan 08

I live in Seoul, so I followed your reference to the NY Times. That article is from November 13, 1992! I heard they used to run female only cars here, but currently there are none. While I am sure there are still problems here sometimes, the trains generally feel quite safe to me. The main thing you have to watch out for these days is the old people aggressively pushing you out of the way to get to a free seat!

Posted by: Seoul Commuter on 26 Jan 08

I've been on the women-only cars in both Cairo and currently in Manila and I have enjoyed them- especially during Ramadan when some women in the cars will start call and response prayers! That being said, it tends to make being in the other cars feel even less welcoming when most of the women are in the back. I don't know how it is in other cities, but I found it interesting that the womens' cars in Cairo were in the back, and in Manila they are in the front- how do other cities do this and what's the implication?

Posted by: helen on 27 Jan 08



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