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Is public transport safe for women?

03 November 2014, 13:34 Anastasia Moloney

As Beatriz Rodriguez leaves her home in Bogota at dawn for work, she braces herself for a 40-minute scrum to get into the bus station and board a bus, and the dangers that come with it.

"Public transport is a nightmare. Mobile phones are frequently stolen and you can be a victim of harassment as I've been," said Rodriguez, 26, a domestic worker, who laments that most people turn a blind eye and assaults are rarely punished.

"At first I thought what I felt against my back was a bag but when I turned around I realised it was a man rubbing up against me, exposing himself. It's disgusting to have to face this on your way to work."

Rodriguez's concerns about her safety are echoed by women across the Colombian capital, with Bogota on Wednesday ranked as having the most dangerous transport system for women in a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll of 15 of the world's largest capitals and New York, the most populous U.S. city.

Bogota and two other Latin American capitals - Mexico City, and Lima in Peru - were named as the three capitals with the least safe transport systems for women in the poll of more than 6,550 women and gender and city planning experts.

Delhi in India came fourth followed by Jakarta and the Argentinian capital Buenos Aires was sixth. New York was ranked as having the safest transport for women followed by Tokyo.

Also read: Dear men who harass women on the street

Rodriguez's story is typical for many women living in Latin America, a region known for its macho culture and high levels of violence against women, despite consensus that safe transport is key for women to go to work, school, and enjoy economic freedom.

Women in Latin America say they face daily threats on public transport ranging from lewd comments and groping to sexual assaults, with men rubbing up against them and taking photos up their skirts and that not enough is done to ensure their safety.

Headline attention to assaults.

Liliana Diaz, a Bogota school teacher, said overcrowding on buses in a city estimated by the United Nations to have 9.6 million people, is a major problem. The city has no trains.

"There aren't enough buses to cater for the demand. A lot of pushing and shoving goes on. Among the crowds it's easy for a man to start touching a woman and go unnoticed," Diaz said.

Martha Lucia Sanchez, women's rights secretary for the mayor's office in Bogota, said she was surprised Bogota fared worst in the poll conducted online by YouGov and with a Thomson Reuters Foundation survey of specialists in each city.

"I'm convinced violence against women on public transport, and in society at large, continues because of impunity and because society tolerates it," Sanchez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in an interview at her office in downtown Bogota.

"About 80 percent of crimes involving violence against women in general remain in impunity. Harassment of women on public transport is still seen as a minor offense and not sexual abuse. There's a lack of solidarity towards women who have been victims of crime among passengers."

The survey involved six questions and found Bogota was ranked as the worst city when it came to women travelling alone at night and for the overall perception about safety.

A spate of sexual assaults on women on Bogota's red bus system, known as TransMilenio, have hit local headlines in recent months, adding to the sense of insecurity felt by women.

In response, a small team of armed undercover policewomen recently started patrolling the city's TransMilenio buses while women-only carriages were introduced as a pilot programme on three routes during off-peak hours earlier this year.

Similar initiatives were introduced in Mexico City in 2008 where women board the front of some buses and wait in special areas at bus and train stops.Yet many women are still victims of assault on transport.

The survey found Mexico City fared worst when it came to women being verbally and physically abused on buses and trains; with more than six out of every 10 women surveyed online by YouGov, or 64 percent of 380 women, saying they had been groped or physically harassed.

In Bogota this figure was 57 percent and in Lima 58 percent. This contrasted with London where the figure was 19 percent.

According to local press reports, authorities in Lima introduced undercover female police officers on packed buses to identify offenders after a front page story in June of a well-known local actress, Magaly Solier, catching a man masturbating behind her on a bus.

A senior female minister, Ana Jara, suggested at the time that women should carry rudimentary weapons like scissors to protect themselves in case "authorities are slow to react".

But the number of women who come forward to officially report abuse is low, with the poll finding little confidence that authorities will thoroughly investigate reports of abuse.

Experts say initiatives such as improving lighting around stations, reducing overcrowding at rush hours, and making it easier for women to report crimes by boosting the number of police on patrol at transport terminals could help.

"The key is to forge empathy among users of public transport and create communities to confront this issue together and not allow victims to be alone," said Aldo Tudela, a consultant for the World Bank's transport department in Mexico City.

 - Women24

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