explainer

'I hid in the bathroom.' Why so many young women travel on public transport in terror.

Susanne Legena is the CEO of Plan International Australia, an independent organisation that works to tackle root causes of the injustices facing girls and the most marginalised children. She writes for us as part of International Day of the Girl. 

Has this ever happened to you?

You’re heading home after work, running for the train, bus or tram when suddenly, you get chills – there’s a man. Maybe he’s leering at you, catcalling, or pushing up against you in the crowd. Whatever it is, you don’t feel safe.

It’s a disturbing scenario, and if you’ve experienced something similar you’re far from alone. Plan International’s latest research on harassment in cities found it to be extremely common – in fact, one survey found 90 per cent of young women in Sydney don’t feel safe after dark.

Where was the most harassment reported? In busy areas with high foot traffic and congestion, particularly public transport zones. That’s right, many young women go about their daily commute in fear.

“…He was still outside waiting for me.”

While harassment is a well-known issue among women, it’s rarely reported, so we lack the evidence to drive change. Plan International developed our Free To Be research project to gather this data. We worked with Melbourne tech company CrowdSpot to develop an online map and survey that allowed girls and women to report harassment and places where they felt unsafe – as well as how they thought locations could be improved. Researchers from Monash University’s XYX Lab then analysed the data.

Our latest report, Unsafe In The City: Sydney, has shed light on the scale of harassment, including reports concentrated around public transport. Take the following two disturbing experiences.

“A man on the train, started harassing me on how I looked… only to follow me off the platform, pressing his body against me, chasing me down the station and into the shops. Had to hide in the bathroom for a while, as he was still outside waiting for me.”

“My friend was stalked for a month by some guy who said he’d been watching her walk to uni and back. He followed her onto the train, he asked lots of invasive questions, when she ignored him or did not answer, he sat uncomfortably close to her and stared at her for her for train ride. She lost him – but then saw him doing this again to other girls.”

Video by Mamamia

Harassment starts young. More than one third of the women who experienced it were first harassed between the ages of 11 and 15. And most of the reports – over two-thirds or 72 per cent – included sexual harassment of some kind. Fourteen per cent recorded sexual assaults.

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Sydney’s women and girls are far from alone. Our Free To Be research was carried out in four other major cities: Lima, in Peru, Kampala, in Uganda, Delhi, in India, and Madrid, in Spain. Harassment in public areas was a disturbingly common experience for women and girls in all cities.

Harassment like catcalls and leering is often trivialised. But we know it has serious consequences – it restricts women and girls, limiting their ability to move freely around their city and feel safe. Our research found more than 200 young women from the five cities stopped studying or quit their job due to perceived risks.

Holly Wainwright speaks with Jade Hameister, the youngest woman to hike the Polar Quest, on our I Don’t Know She Does It Podcast. Post continues after.

Let that sink in: here in Australia, and all over the world, there are girls and young women who are sacrificing their education or income because of the consistent harassment and abuse they face getting around their city. Are we supposed to accept that this is just the price to pay for being a girl? That catcalling and groping is just ‘harmless fun’?

Today is International Day of the Girl – a day Plan International proposed to highlight girls’ voices on the issues that matter to them. Not to simply make ourselves feel good, but so we could hear what they had to say, and work with them to find solutions.

It’s clear things need to change.

When it comes to street harassment, it’s clear things need to change. Over half the world’s population lives in cities. We need to make sure that they are accessible for all who live there.

Plan International works with girls in cities all over the world, and if there’s one thing we’ve learned, it’s that change always begins with listening to their experiences. When we do, the solutions become clear.

For many girls in Sydney, these solutions include relatively simple steps such as improving lighting. For others, we need greater clarity in the laws around street harassment so that authorities are better able to respond to incidents.

Most critically, we need to challenge toxic masculinity and empower bystanders to put a stop to harassment. Transport and city authorities can do a lot to help – such as running behaviour change ad campaigns that tackle the root causes of gender-based street harassment and encourage by-standers to call it out.

Boys and men must understand that such harassment shouldn’t be a part of “normal” life for girls and women. It’s not harmless fun – it’s frightening, disempowering and unacceptable.

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