Sexual harassment on public transport: not just London

Why is Project Guardian so London-centric?

Back in March, on International Women's Day, Ellie Cosgrave danced out her anger on a busy London Underground train. The reason for her brave, unusual protest? A couple of years previously, a fellow passenger had pressed his erection into her from behind on the very same packed Northern Line carriage, leaving her with semen running down her legs and an anger that only intensified in the months that followed.

It's an anger that many women travelling on the UK's trains and buses must share; sexual harassment and intimidation of women is a pervasive but relatively undiscussed problem on public transport systems all over the country. The reason the issue has remained so well-hidden from crime statistics and public debate is clear – like Ellie, many women feel obliged to downplay these incidents in their immediate aftermath, and aren't at all confident that they'll be taken seriously if they do report their experiences to the police or transport authorities. The most recent Transport for London safety and security survey paints the picture in numbers: around 15 per cent of London's female public transport users have experienced '"unwanted sexual behaviour" on the network, it found, but up to 90 per cent of those affected didn't report the incident to police.

The British Transport Police is hoping to address this startling disparity between sexual offences and the frequency with which they are reported with its recently-launched Project Guardian scheme in London. The project, which was developed with input from campaign groups Everyday Sexism, the End Violence Against Women Coalition and Hollaback UK, aims to increase public awareness of the problem and bolster women's confidence to report threatening sexual behaviour, as well as spearheading a more proactive policing strategy.

The BTP faces an uphill battle to implement an effective anti-harassment strategy, in London or anywhere else. From a cultural perspective, the unspoken assumption by many authorities and members of the public that women should either find unwanted attention flattering, or change their own behaviour to avoid being targeted, needs to be rigorously challenged. Transport authorities in Beijing were the latest to fall back on this victim-blaming messaging earlier this summer, when officials advised women to avoid wearing short dresses on public transport, or even "shelter their bodies with bags, magazines and newspapers" to prevent sexual harassment.

"We don't want anyone to have to change their behaviour to prevent becoming a victim," Inspector Ricky Twyford of the BTP told me recently. "The only people whose behaviour should change are those who are perpetrating this activity."

Another major hurdle is that much of this kind of behaviour doesn't actually constitute a criminal offence. It might not be illegal for a man to sit directly next to a woman on an empty carriage at night, openly staring, but it's certainly an intimidating experience that puts many women off travelling alone after dark. The BTP hopes that increasing the rate of reporting will help officers build a more detailed picture of all incidents, major and minor, so that officers can be deployed to provide visible reassurance, even if arrest isn't an option.  

Since Project Guardian's London-centric launch, many have understandably asked why this national issue isn't being addressed with a nationwide campaign. Certainly, sexual harassment needs to be highlighted on trains and buses all over the country, but a major pilot project on the UK's largest urban transport network is a good start that will hopefully serve as a springboard for a national discussion. Of course, the goal of any sane society should be to challenge and gradually overturn a prevailing culture that shrugs its shoulders at the casual harassment of women on our public transport and in our public spaces, and focuses on victims' behaviour rather than that of their abusers. Sadly, that process will be a long and arduous one, but it's encouraging that public authorities are starting to recognise the problem, and that there are courageous individuals like Ellie Cosgrave who are willing to dance their defiance against the status quo.

For the full article on Project Guardian:

Project Guardian aims to raise awareness of sexual harassment on public transport. Photograph: Getty Images


Chris Lo is a senior technology writer for the NRI Digital network.

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