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Will this actually help to prevent sexual assault against women?

By MELISSA WELLHAM

Sometimes I get scared catching public transport at night.

I wish this wasn’t the case. I wish that every time I had to wait at a bus stop or train station after the sun had set, I felt completely at ease. I wish I didn’t have to practice constant vigilance. I wish that I lived in a society were sexual assault and violence against women was less common than it is.

But would I feel safer catching a train that had carriages only for women and children? Would being ensconced behind pink doors, rather than the regular ol’ yellow, make me feel any differently?

The NSW Rape Crisis Centre and the transport union has released a plan for pink train carriages, which will be for women and children only. These organisations argue that the carriages should be introduced to give those most vulnerable at night “safe zones”, and are calling on the government to trial the carriages for the next three months, from 7pm to midnight.

The SMH reports:

There were 203 reported cases of sexual assault and other sexual offences on the rail network in 2010, according to the most recent data. Women aged 18 to 29 were the most likely to be the victims.

… Karen Willis, executive officer of the crisis centre, said many women refused to take trains at night because they felt unsafe.

”While it is always the offender who is responsible for their behaviour, this option … with access to the guard and security alarms, may encourage women and children to go out and enjoy all that our city has to offer without being concerned about what may happen in the train on the way home,” she said.

Women-only carriages have been successful – that is, popular – in other countries, such as Brazil, Japan, Egypt, Indonesia and India.

Australia would currently be the only western country to institute this segregating practice for women and their children. In the past, the UK provided some “Ladies Only” accommodation, the last of which ran in 1977.

Part of the controversy surrounding women’s only carriages, with pink painted doors, is that they may be seen as sexist. They automatically paint – forgive the terminology – men as the perpetrators of violence, and women as the victims. Although women are more frequently victims of sexual violence, creating women’s only carriages does nothing to protect men on public transport who are also at a higher risk of general physical assault.

Some have also viewed the suggestion of women’s only train carriages as tokenistic, if not patronising. And instead they’re calling for more visible security on trains and train stations that would to protect all people – whether male or female – from violence.

However, just because men are also physically assaulted, does not mean that measures to specifically address violence against women should be criticised. Obviously both issues need to be addressed – but sometimes, the different issues will require different solutions.

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One of the key concerns that women’s only train carriages does address, is that women often don’t catch public transport at night, because they don’t feel safe catching public transport at night.

Not everyone thinks this is rational.

“Sorry, honey. You can’t come on board.”

Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research director Don Weatherburn said that although the rate of assaults on public transport has been rising, given the total number of passengers, the rate was still low.

However, it is worth noting that Don Weatherburn is not, in fact, a woman. And he doesn’t know what it feels like to be a woman, alone at night on public transport. And he certainly doesn’t know what it is like to be a woman, and to have had the statistic ‘1 in 3 women will be sexually assaulted in their lifetime’ drilled into your head, since you were old enough to go out at night alone.

A statistically speaking ‘low rate’ of violence against women is not necessarily something to celebrate. A ‘low rate’ of sexual assault still means that sexual assault is occurring.

Putting aside the extent to which women-only carriages may or may not decrease incidents of sexual assault – the psychological effect they have should not be underestimated. Women and children – and women with children – who are uncomfortable catching public transport alone at night, may now feel safer and more secure.

Because a lick of pink paint is more than decorative – it sends a message. The message that the government knows that sexual violence against women is occurring, and they are watching. The message that sexual violence is not okay. The message that we are working towards a society where sexual violence against women does not occur.

I might not feel safer catching public transport at night, for the mere fact that I am sitting in a train carriage with pink doors.

But I would feel more optimistic that sexual violence against women is being acknowledged as a problem.

And – along with pink doors on train carriages – I would hope that other solutions are being devised.

The trial has yet to be confirmed.

What do you think about women’s only train carriages? Should they be trialled, or are they sexist? 

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