Hollaback London and Women Only Carriages

Last week we had a series of press requests about the comments made by Chris Williamson around women only carriages. 

At Hollaback London we consequently feel it important that we respond to these comments, to ensure that the voices of those who share stories onto our site are heard.

Tweeting on 22/08, Williamson noted that that the rises in reporting of harassment and sexual assaults on public transport “seem to indicate there is some merit in examining” whether women only carriages could reduce violence against women and girls on public transport. He went on to note that this would have to be complemented with having more guards on trains. He suggested that “it may create a safe space. It would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of it.”

We are deeply frustrated that once again a white man is informing us of what they feel may make us feel safer, when quite simply what will make us feel safer is an end to violence against women. Women only carriages do not stop men harassing women on trains. They push the problem away. They are a band aid, and we do not want any more band aids.

We are also confused as to why an increase in reporting is being read solely as an increase in violence when the rise in can also be connected to women also finding the strength to speak out.

Hollaback London believes that it is important that all women and non-binary people feel safe when they travel. In this current climate of heightened sexism, racism and transphobia, women only carriages may do that for some women – and there is also evidence that women only carriages can reduce reports of harassment and helps to allow women to feel safer, for example:

o   In Mexico City, women only carriages cut the number of sexual harassment cases from five to one a day.

o    In Japan, a survey of 155 women found that over half would like to see more women-only carriages.

o   2014 you gov poll showed 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

However we believe women/non-binary are a response to ongoing violence and must always occur alongside full preventative responses. This is because safe space policies do not prevent violence. It is vital to remember that a decrease in reports of violence and harassment, and the illusion of feeling safer does not mean that the violence has stopped or that perpetrators have ceased. They are still there.

‘Ladies Only’ compartments have already been trialed in the UK  in 1874 by the Metropolitan Railway, and the uptake was low and did not stop violence – this was why they were abolished in 1977. Below we list our key concerns with the women only carriages approach, and expand upon why we fundamentally disagree with them.

Our concerns:

  1.   Women only carriages again put the onus on women to prevent the violence and harassment that is perpetrated against them by men. We are already forced to flee from violence constantly – we should not be segregated on public transport as well.
  2.  We worry how things like the basic logistics of using public transport would work for women and non-binary people – what about trains that split? What about walking through carriages? Would women’s only carriages be at the front or the back? Again women would be forced to carry all of the labour to “look after themselves”. Importantly where would trans or non-binary people go to feel safe? The whole notion of women only carriages is rooted in gender binaries that are violent and oppressive.
  3.   In addition to this, we dislike what this says about women and the impacts that it may have on how women and non-binary people feel about themselves. This has been echoed by a year? report by Middlesex University for the Department of Transport which confirmed that bringing women-only carriages would be a “retrograde step” that “could be thought of as insulting, patronising and shaming to both men and women”.
  4.   A further concern is around the way in which women only carriages may impact reporting of harassment and violence, and also convictions rates. Women and non-binary people already minimise what they have experienced due to the patriarchal culture we reside within, and because of this reporting is such a huge thing to do. It takes so much, and there are so many barriers that have to be overcome already. This is why currently only around 15% of survivors of sexual violence report what they have experienced. Women only carriages has the potential to add an extra barrier to reporting, something that Williamson’s own tweets alluded to in relation to how women/non-binary people can “choose” which carriage they go into. What if then, she/they makes the perfectly valid choice to not ride in the mixed gender carriage, and then she/they is harassed in the men’s carriage? She will be blamed. Women and non-binary people are already blamed for what they are wearing when they are assaulted. This is simply one more thing which survivors can be blamed for. We worry that this victim-blaming trope would go onto have huge ramifications for conviction rates. We fear that the “choice” Williamson referred to will be used by the CPS to decide not to charge, or by defence barristers to imply offences were consensual. While there has been a 123% increase in reporting generally across the UK, and there were 1,448 sex offences were reported in 2016/17, compared with 650 incidents in 2012/2013, British Transport Police figures show.  In stark contrast convictions remain at an embarrassingly low of around 7.5% from report to court. This has to change, and we believe that women only carriages will only worsen things.
  5. We are also aware that segregationist policies are often seen as a solution to oppression when in fact they only breed it further. Currently 85% of women in the UK have experienced some form of harassment, and all too often no one steps in. Silence is simply a more insidious form of violence, but it is violence nonetheless. We worry that separate carriages would actually increase this silence, and would thus disincentive bystander intervention programmes which are vital. Currently only 11% of women report that someone intervened to offer support when they were being harassed whereas 81% of women wished someone had done so.

Our suggestions for increasing safety and challenging harassment on public transport:

  1.   Increased bystander intervention training across all transport services, and increase staffing on public transport. This is supported by Manuel Cortes, general secretary of the train workers union TSSA: “A properly staffed railway at all times is the only way to keep travellers safe. Importantly we do not believe that an increase in police will be beneficial”.
  2.   Increasing the number of modern trains across the service that has one carriage, as opposed to separate carriages. This has the potential to reduce the feeling of being trapped in the carriage with someone dangerous, and also ensures that many people can see and therefore intervene in what is happening.
  3.   As we have asserted time and again, SRE must be fully implemented in schools across the country. This is the only way to get to the root.
  4.   We urge TFL and the BtP to continue to work alongside us, as they have done with Project Guardian and Report it to Stop it, to ensure that all women, girls and non-binary people are able to travel and exist without the threat of violence.

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