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: http://www.railway-technology.com/features/feature-project-guardian-sexual-harassment-public-transport/

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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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.