Safe and secure, from London to Lahore and everywhere in between!

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Ensuring women’s safety and personal security on public transport is an important issue across the world.
Ensuring women’s safety and personal security on public transport is an important issue across the world.
Walking, cycling and use of public transport is encouraged if public space is safe.
Walking, cycling and use of public transport is encouraged if public space is safe.

In this authored blog on International Women’s Day, Heather Allen, an expert on urban public transport, climate change and sustainable development, previews her forthcoming research for the FIA Foundation on the importance of ensuring women’s safety and security on public transport and in public space.

“March 8th – International Women’s Day – gives us a good reason to reflect on progress on the variety of women’s issues that are hindering equality. Being safe and secure is a basic human value – yet in today’s world, personal security is still a major issue everywhere. In a woman’s world there are also more subtle links between it, public space and transport that I have been looking into more closely.

I have just finished a review of published literature on this subject and the report will be published soon by the FIA Foundation.

Many studies show that all over the world women use all forms of public transport more than men and, more importantly, they rely on it more than men do usually as they have fewer or no other mobility choices. Yet they are also more worried about using it, as their personal security is frequently compromised. By reviewing international published research, and making a rapid assessment of media coverage, our results indicate that this may be getting worse rather than better! This could be just because it is being reported more – and moving from something being ‘invisibly’ there, to something being recognised as an issue. I suppose this in itself can be considered to be some sort of progress.

All forms of harassment affect people. Men and women alike suffer from it – and worse sometimes. Men suffer more than women when it comes to serious and violent assaults, while it comes as no surprise that women suffer more from sexual attacks. However, any sort of harassment seems to affect women more than men, and in order to avoid risk they tend to use strategies that usually means that either they decide not to travel or they seriously change their travel habits. Thus it impacts their access to opportunities, and ultimately their quality of life.

Harassment can take various forms such as verbal harassment (cat calling or unwanted teasing); visual harassment such as leering or staring and physical forms such as men exposing themselves, groping or other forms of touching etc. It is a complex subject, and not made any easier by the subjective nature of how individuals interpret what might be considered harassment. In some cultures this is directed by social norms whilst in others it may be religious, faith or even income-based. We are not just talking violence here; but rather behaviours that are unwanted, uninvited or that stimulate fearfulness. It is fear of it happening that is as bad as what actually happens and it affects different women in different ways, making it difficult to apply scientific theory to understand why and how this happens. Collecting data on this is also made more difficult as the information can be spread across a number of security agencies so much of the information can be considered to be anecdotal, unless it is obviously of a criminal nature.

However from the research undertaken to date it is clear that it happens more often than is thought. The initial findings show that women face harassment while using public transport on a daily basis all over the world. It is reported as an issue of concern from Baku, Azerbaijan to Bogotá, Colombia – and everywhere in between! It is also not confined in any way to the developing world, and appears to be just as prevalent in rich, highly industrialised cities such as London, New York or Paris.

High rates of non-reporting of incidents were found internationally: in New York it is estimated that 96 per cent of sexual harassment and 86 per cent of sexual assault on the subway goes unreported; in Baku, Azerbaijan, none of the 162 out of 200 women who reported having been sexually harassed on the metro reported it to the appropriate authority. In Egypt, of 1000 women surveyed, only 2.4 per cent of the 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 7.5 per cent of the 98 per cent of foreign women living or travelling in Egypt who had experienced sexual harassment in a public place, reported it.

There is not a lot of information on women who have either reduced their mobility horizons or changed their travel patterns due to concerns over personal security, so it is not easy to understand the effect of this undesirable behaviour. But it is likely to have a larger impact on women contributing to society and the labour force than is possibly currently understood. We already know that all forms of harassment, sexual or other, affect women deeply and reduce their confidence, impacting their ability to move freely in public places. If this is directly associated with their transport options, it will affect their decisions to take up educational opportunities, join the labour market and influences the kinds of jobs they pursue.

Possibly more worrying, is the fact that we know that women play a strong role in influencing the value sets of their children. If they pass a negative value judgement on to them about using public transport, based on their experience and perceptions, it can reduce the possibility to increase the use of public/mass transport in the future. As this is a core pillar of sustainable mobility especially as the world becomes increasingly urbanised, by not addressing this issue we are creating the framework to fail. Those boys and girls will grow up thinking that it is unsafe, and as soon as they can, they will prefer to buy or share a car, motorbike or scooter – creating a vicious downward spiral of increased congestion even if every vehicle is cleaner than today!

So where does that lead us? Certainly further away from where we want to be in terms of equal opportunities and sustainable development. September 2015 saw a new set of Sustainable Development Goals being agreed by the international community. Goal 5 aims to achieve gender equality and empower women and girls and end all forms of discrimination by 2030. Women’s empowerment was further brought into the spotlight at Davos 2016. Not only was it the subject of several panels at the event but UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon also launched the first-ever High-Level Panel on Women’s Economic Empowerment. This panel is to provide thought leadership and mobilise concrete actions aimed at closing the economic gender gaps that persist around the world. It will provide recommendations for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to improve economic outcomes for women and promote women’s leadership in driving sustainable and inclusive, environmentally sensitive economic growth.

There is little doubt that getting more women into the work place will have a positive impact putting the global economy back on track. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that if women in every country were to play an identical role to men in markets, as much as US$28 trillion would be added to the global economy by 2025. If we also accept that there are many young girls who would like to work when they grow up and link this to the recent findings of the ILO on youth unemployment with almost 43 per cent of the global youth labour force in 2015 being either unemployed or working yet living in poverty – we can see that by addressing this issue we can unlock significant opportunity for growth.

Women can and should be able to play a role in society and it is important that women are able to fully contribute to a country’s development. Excluding women from being active in the labour market, for any reason, should be considered to be out of order in today’s world; and by doing so it is likely to will reduce both the speed and robustness of sustainable, economic development. If the reason for exclusion is due to transport inequalities, we can do something about it, but only if we manage to take it out of the security arena and put it firmly in shift the development one.

Both aspects are interdependent – the more active women are in the labour market the more they are able to demand safe and secure transport, the less empowered they are the more socially exclusive transport becomes. Putting them in separate carriages may be a temporary solution, but it also underpins the concept that women should be kept apart and not be given equal rights. By addressing both ends of this equation we can create a win,win win situation – addressing equity, economic empowerment and improving quality of life for but we need to take the steps to ensure that we work on changing behaviour and attitudes. Making sure that people do not think that this is acceptable or that they will not be caught is good first step – let’s start today in respect of women everywhere!

Continue the conversation via twitter heatherallen007 & this year’s conversation on International Women’s Day #iwd2016.

My grateful thanks to the FIA Foundation for their foresight and vision in supporting this research. The full report and executive summary will be published later this month and you can join a free webinar on March 21st 14 -17h GMT to present the results. Details are available from Caroline Flynn.”

This is a longer version of a blog posted on the OECD and ITF websites.

These views are the author’s own.