Female-only train carriages: A way to protect women or a way to excuse violence?

The concept of women-only train carriages has been floating around for a while [Photo: Getty]

Women-only train carriages have been in existence for years in several countries around the world. The likes of Japan, Mexico and Brazil implemented the policy to combat rising numbers of groping and sexual assaults on public transport.

Britain found itself contemplating the idea in 2015 when Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn suggested female-only carriages could be a real possibility.

Labour MP Chris Williamson showed support for the idea, referencing worrying statistics that show sexual offences on trains have more than doubled in the past five years.

“These statistics seem to indicate there is some merit in examining that,” he told PoliticsHome. “Complemented with having more guards on trains, it would be a way of combatting these attacks, which have seen a very worrying increase in the past few years.”

“I’m not saying it has to happen, but it may create a safe space. It would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of it.”

Several women – including other Labour MPs – have spoken out against the strategy, labelling it as way of letting sexual offenders avoid punishment.

We spoke to two people – one for and one against – to see if there could be any ‘merit’ in women-only train carriages.

“I – as well as many women I know – have experienced some form of harassment or assault on public transport. Whether it’s being touched, groped, or simply unwelcome attention such as men persistently asking which stop I’m getting off at or trying to talk to me even when I’ve politely and firmly told them I’m quite happy being left alone reading my book.

“For women who have experienced this or more serious assault, a single-sex carriage would give them a reassurance of safety and enable them to travel without fear. For those who think it ‘normalises’ attacks or places blame or onus on the victim rather than the perpetrator, then I would say perhaps it takes a move as drastic as this to show people that there’s a real problem.

“But it should be part of a wider campaign. We need to use the publicity of a women-only carriage to open up a discussion on the underlying issues: of violence against women, of street harassment, of assault in the workplace.

“I used a women’s-only train carriage in Tokyo out of curiosity, at first. But after some unpleasant experiences in the mixed gender carriages (trains in Japan are even more crowded than London Underground, and it became almost routine to feel people brushing up against you), I came to rely on them as a quieter, less crowded, more peaceful way to travel. I could sit down and read my book in peace on the way to work – rather than worry about who had their hand on my backside.”

“Women-only train carriages is the classic response of a male-dominated political system to violence against women – it casts it as a women‘s issue and accepts that endemic harassment is a fact of life. It is not.

“Telling women to sit in female-only carriages excuses violence by men. It places the responsibility for avoiding violence on women. It fails to make men responsible for their actions. It casts violence against women on trains as a thing that happens on trains, and requires a train-specific response. It makes male violence small, and nothing to do with men.

“The only way to stop violence against women on trains is to stop violence against women. The way to stop violence against women is to build a society based on tolerance, respect and consent in which men and women have equal choices.

“We have to teach young girls and boys that they are equal, instead of feeding them ludicrous, gendered stereotypes that fuel another generation of power imbalance. We have to create an equal education system that halts the occupational segregation of young men and women into jobs that we rate and remunerate differently. We have to see care as vital infrastructure and value those who provide it. We have to set standards by which women are equally represented in politics and in business. We have to train juries and magistrates and police forces in unconscious bias. We have to have mandatory, funded, quality sex and relationships education for all.

“There is no silver bullet. But, for Women’s Equality at least, there is political will.”

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