“Hey, did you know that Rennes is the smallest European city to have a subway?”

I like to throw out that line when I meet new people. Little did I know how that line intersects the issue of gender equality. 

I come from Rennes, (Brittany, France) a city with slightly less than 215,000 inhabitants, and in spite of its size it boasts a subway system. The city’s public transportation is very well implemented and developed, we take the subway, the bus, and can travel around easily without a car.

Due to this, when I moved to Cambodia last year, this is probably what struck me the most: Tuk-tuks were the only mean of transport in Phnom Penh. During that time, I also took a short trip to Kuala Lumpur, and for the first time in my life I used a women-only carriage, and when an older man sat next to me in a women-only carriage and started saying things that he shouldn’t say, that’s when something else struck me: after months living in Cambodia without subway or buses, I almost forgot what it felt like to be harassed in public transport.

But it is hard to forget when you have first been harassed in a public bus at 15. It is hard to forget all those times when the subway is so overcrowded in the morning that some take this opportunity to get too close to others. And you can’t forget all those times when taking the bus at night sounds as unsafe as walking home after dark.

To me, the #HearMeToo campaign was the occasion to shed light on the many different forms of violence that women experience. While we often tend to associate gender-based violence with physical domestic violence, there are so many different forms of violence that need to be called out. 

Public transportation has obviously many advantages, it's deemed safer than individual vehicles, it improves access, it creates community cohesion, etc.; and I am well aware of that because of where I come from.

For this reason, we need to highlight the fact that violence against women takes many different forms, from sexual harassment on the street, on public transport, or in other public places, women’s mobility is at risk.

In fact, public transit is often where women, and men, are harassed or assaulted for the first time.

This is an endemic issue that takes place all over the world, from France to Sri Lanka, women feel unsafe using public transportation. But today, more than 54% of the global population lives in cities, and in 2030 this will rise to 60%. Today, violence against women and girls is a common theme that runs deep in urban areas as well. According to a report from the French High Council on Gender Equality, 100% of the women interviewed who use public transportation have reported having experienced at least once sexual harassment or assault in public transport. In Sri Lanka 90% of women experience sexual harassment in public transport. As the numbers show, something that should be as simple as using public transportation is a real challenge for women. 

A challenge that some have to go through every single day.

At the end of last year, we launched the 16 Days of Activism Campaign against Gender-Based Violence with the hashtag HearMeToo. 16 days to learn, speak up, and reflect on our own experiences. A few weeks later, it now feels like a good time to put those reflections on paper, and think about what this means to me.

Many cities are now trying to discourage the use of cars to tackle traffic pollution, and some have even been experimenting making public transportation free to encourage people to leave their car at home. But if we want to keep improving urban spaces so that it can benefit all, we need to incorporate women’s need for safety and security. And aside from that, we need to address violent behaviours entrenched in social norms that allow men to feel entitled to harass women once they enter the public space.

That’s why we need campaigns like #HearMeToo, so that these behaviours are finally being called out.

So I’ll keep asking people if they know that I come from the smallest European city to have a subway, but I hope that soon enough I’ll be able to think of it as a safe space for all.

About the author

Susie Marie is an intern with the UNDP Bangkok Regional Hub Gender Team. She recently graduated with an Erasmus Mundus M.A. from the University of Groningen, Netherlands.

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