Labour leadership frontrunner Jeremy Corbyn made waves today with the announcement that he would consider carrying out a consultation on maybe& introducing women-only carriages on tubes after 10pm. Crazy, we know. What a firebrand.
But the real reason the suggestion is already so controversial, despite its tentative nature, is that it implies that Corbyn thinks women-only carriages could be solution to harassment on public transport. And as we all know, suggesting an imperfect solution to something like this is far, far more offensive than not attempting to tackle it at all (see: the government for the past five years; most governments prior to it).
Corbyn is expected to make a speech today which will also pledge to set up a campaign combating street sexism, a 24 hour harassment hotline and the appointment of women’s safety officers in local councillors. He’s expected to say:
It is simply unacceptable that many women and girls adapt their daily lives in order to avoid being harassed on the street, public transport and in other public places from the park to the supermarket. This could include taking longer routes to work, having self-imposed curfews, avoiding certain means of transport.”
The idea of women-only transport in Britain is nothing new: most recently, Conservative transport minister Claire Perry floated the idea in 2014, but it was never taken forward.
But given that a consultation may take place under a Corbyn-led Labour party, it’s worth knowing the arguments and evidence for and against women-only carriages. So: could segregated carriages on post-10pm tubes successfully drive down transport harassment?
Here’s why women-only carriages are great
They’re already in use in many countries, including Brazil, Egypt, India, Russia, Japan and Thailand.
Where they’re in use, they seem to work. According to a report put together in February by Middlesex University, British Transport Police and the Department for Transport, there’s a lack of conclusive evidence on whether women-only carriages reduce harassment, but as part of a 2008 women’s safety campaign in Mexico City, they cut the number of sexual harassment cases from five to one a day. In Japan, a survey of 155 women found that over half would like to see more women-only carriages.
A sizeable number of London’s women say they’d feel safer in a women’s carriage. A 2014 poll from YouGov and the Thompson Reuters foundation found that 45 per cent of surveyed women in London would feel safer on segregated transport, compared to seven in 10 of women surveyed around the world.
Here’s why women-only carriages are not so great
They imply that women should take measures to secure their own safety, rather tackling harassment at its source. This is a popular view on Twitter this morning, and with the two female leadership candidates:
Would they be enforced properly? In Mexico City, 44 per cent of women did not agree that women-only carriages were safer in a 2013 survey. Over half of these said it was because they weren’t well-guarded, and men didn’t respect the segregation. Tubes are notoriously staff free: without a security guard, it’s hard to see how the carriages would be kept segregated.
The carriages could be trans-exclusionary, depending on the method of enforcement. In today’s society we broadly accept that gender is more complex than “he looks like a man, so he is a man and shouldn’t be allowed on this carriage”. This is especially problematic considering trans people might need the protection offered by the carriages just as much, if not more than, cis women.
In some places where women-only transport is in use, it’s not very popular. In Pune, India, only 2 per cent of women thought single-sex buses were a good idea. In Sao Paolo, women have argued that they should be able to feel safe in public without boarding the “pink train”.
The British Transport Police/Middlesex University report argues that the introduction of women-only transport would be viewed as a “retrograde step in Great Britain, which could be thought of as insulting patronising and shaming to both men and women”. Pretty damning conclusion, there.
Other solutions might work better. Higher staffing levels, prominent CCTV and education campaigns have all been proposed as measures which could also drive down harassment. They would have the benefit of targetting perpetrators, rather than encouraging victims to protect themselves by boarding a separate carriage
So in summary: women around the world broadly agree that they’d feel safer on women-only carriages. But the question of how you enforce them, and whether they send a negative societal message, could outweigh the benefits.