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Women’s access to safe transport

Last edited: July 08, 2020

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Providing safe transport is crucial for women’s access to decent work; it is also vitally important to reduce violence and harassment against women, particularly as women are more likely to depend on public transport than men and face greater risks when they have to travel late at night (Action Aid International, 2016).

When public transport is unsafe, this compromises women’s safety in getting to and from work. Two surveys carried out by the French National Federation of Transport Users show that sexual harassment in public transport is a massive and growing phenomenon. Of those women surveyed, 90 per cent had experienced sexual harassment while taking public transport. This harassment was found to have a big impact on women’s daily and professional lives and their mobility, and was deemed to be a breach of equality between women and men. For example, 80 per cent of women stated that they changed how they traveled because of sexual harassment, 48 per cent changed the way they dressed, 34 per cent said they used other types of transport, and 9 per cent did not travel alone.[1] 

“On 16 December 2012, six men brutally beat and raped a 23 year-old trainee physiotherapist on a bus in Delhi, India in front of other passengers. She died 13 days later from her injuries” (International Transport Federation, Undated, p.3).

The culture of impunity for violence against women was challenged by the global outcry and widespread demonstrations of women and men throughout India.

In recent years, violence and harassment in public spaces such as transport has gained increasing attention. Women are major users of public transport and experience significant levels of violence and harassment, including sexual harassment, while travelling to and from work. The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) 2014 survey estimated that up to 55 per cent of women in the European Union had experienced sexual harassment since the age of 16 years and reported that many of these incidents took place in public spaces and while taking public transport (FRA, 2014). Women in certain sectors or jobs, often under pressure to stay longer at work to complete orders and to put in long working hours, face further risks if they have to travel late at night. For example, young women working in export processing zones have been reported to experience greater vulnerability to violence and sexual abuse in factories, company accommodation or travelling to work (Morris and Pillinger, 2016).

Workers in sectors such as road transport, municipal work, factory work and retail, which require working on a late shift or during the night, also report violence and harassment when travelling to and from work. Trade unions have pointed out the need for employers to provide safe transport facilities for workers on a night shift and to meet the needs of workers who are dependent on public transport to get home at night (ITF, 2018).

Promising practices on safe, gender-responsive public transport planning include the following elements (Action Aid International, 2017):

  • Protocols to address sexual harassment and violence for public transport workers and those using public transport;
  • Increase in women’s representation and leadership in public transport jobs;
  • Organized bus stops, bus stop shelters and information stands;
  • Protection against severe weather conditions;
  • Better lighting and visibility, including for parking and outdoor waiting areas;
  • Use of visible materials to increase security, provision of route information, timetables and a phone number for emergencies;
  • Training and awareness-raising on gender and women’s rights for public transport staff;
  • Increasing female staff in public transport, including in non-traditional roles such as bus or train drivers;
  • Increased connectivity between neighbourhoods and routes, so that women from the poorest and most peripheral areas can access public transport.

Making transport and public spaces safe for women workers

“Freedom from Fear” Campaign in the retail sector in the UK

In the retail sector in the UK, the “Freedom from Fear” campaign by the Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (USDAW), has found practical ways to work with employers to increase the safety for women shop workers, particularly as many shops and supermarkets are open until very late in the evening or are open 24-hours a day (Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers, Undated).

Positive examples of concrete changes that workers and employers have agreed to include:

  • Giving women time to come off the checkouts once the store had closed, so they could move their cars to directly outside the store (staff car parking was often the furthest away from the store);
  • Fitting a loud bell to the staff entrance, so that when women arrive for their shift early in the morning, they can be heard and let into the store straight away;
  • Changing shifts or agreeing to finish a shift early to enable staff to catch the last bus home;
  • Keeping car park lights on until staff have left the premises.

Campaigning in South Africa for public transport and challenging harassment, violence and sexual assault against women workers

In the retail sector in South Africa long opening hours means that women workers are expected to work late hours with no access to transport. According to unions this has contributed to numerous incidents of rape, including gang rape and murder of workers. Some companies provide transport when workers work late hours. However, the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union has recently dealt with several cases of gang rape, murder and assault of members, which have occurred due to a lack of transport (ILO, 2017e).

Many national and local governments around the world, working closely with transport companies, have prioritized campaigns and safety measures to reduce violence and harassment against women.

Safe public transport campaigns by transport companies

“Let’s Travel Safe” - the “Viajemos seguras” initiative in Mexico (Action Aid International, 2017)

In one study, more than 64 per cent of women living in Mexico stated they had experienced some form of physical harassment on public transport.  The “Viajemos seguras” (“Let’s travel safe”) initiative combines a range of initiatives to make transport safe for women, in an area where 15.7 million people use public transport daily. It is pioneering because of its complexity, focusing on bus, subway systems and taxis.  It provides offices for reporting violence, training for security service providers and drivers, and campaigns to highlight inappropriate male behaviour. The policy coordinates state agencies and a transport system at an accessible cost, connecting peripheral areas with other neighbourhoods through a complex network of public transport. It is a good illustration of public policy implemented to prevent violence against women in one of the world’s largest metropolitan areas.

National Plan to Combat Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in France[2]

In July 2015, the French government drew up a “National Plan to Combat Sexual Harassment and Sexual Violence in Public Transport”. The Plan sets out 12 measures to effectively combat sexual harassment and sexual violence against women in public transport, which are developed across three main axes: better prevention; more efficient responses; and better support for victims in non-sexist transport.

One innovative measure was the introduction of “participative walks”, enabling women to pinpoint areas in train stations and subways that were unsafe or insecure, and to identify areas for improvements, such as lighting, human presence or video protection. In 2016, participative walks took place in 72 different train stations. An awareness campaign was launched in 2015 by the national rail operator, SNCF, and the Paris public transport company, RAPT. It was implemented through a poster campaign and on the internet, and aimed at informing the public that harassment and gender-based violence are punishable by law.  Many of the initiatives in the plan, including training of staff and the introduction of safety measures and alert systems, have been rolled out to local areas.



[1] See: European Commission/OSB (2017) op cit.

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