• A women's only train carriage in Tokyo. (Getty Images)Source: Getty Images
As a union leader calls for female-only train carriages to stop sexual assault, they may be a necessary short-term step.
Nicola Heath

23 Jun 2016 - 10:48 AM  UPDATED 23 Jun 2016 - 11:14 AM

The NSW Rail, Tram and Bus Union unveiled a proposal in March to designate carriages “women only” on the state’s rail network in an effort to reduce sexual assaults on trains.

According to Rail, Tram and Bus Union national secretary Bob Nanva, there have been 2859 criminal offences against women on public transport, including almost 19 sexual offences against women on NSW bus, tram and train networks every month since September 2012.

“That’s simply unacceptable,” says Nanva. “We must do more to protect commuters from violent and anti-social behaviour on public transport.”

The solution the RTBU has settled on is a proposal for Safe Carriages. Under the plan passengers who feel vulnerable using public transport at night – not just women – could travel in carriages with extra safety features such as easy access to duress buttons, CCTV and regular checks by staff.

According to Nanva, “ultimately, Safe Carriages should be for people who feel vulnerable, including people who identify as transgender.”

Women-only areas are cropping up in other public spaces, too. In 2016, the iconic UK music festival Glastonbury will feature a women-only venue for the first time. Organisers says The Sisterhood space will be “intersectional, queer, trans and disability-inclusive” and run by female-identifying staff".

In April, the city of Perth announced a ‘female-friendly’ parking bay trial, adding car parks to a list of public spaces that are single-sex. Universities offer women-only spaces, and women-only gyms and swimming pools are nothing new.

I suspect if men are being drunk and obnoxious they ought to be stuck away in a separate carriage rather than limit women to the special carriage.

For more than a century, female swimmers have been enjoying Coogee’s McIvers Baths, a concrete pool hewn into rock which in 1995 was granted an exemption to the New South Wales Anti-Discrimination Act.

But rather than offering protection, do female-only spaces "ghettoise" women? Some feminist observers think so.

In response to the RBTU proposal, Eva Cox suggested inverting the policy. “I suspect if men are being drunk and obnoxious they ought to be stuck away in a separate carriage rather than limit women to the special carriage,” she said.

“I think we should lock up the potential perpetrators. Or keep them away from the women rather than the other way around.”

Another reservation many have with segregating gender in the name of safety is the risk of victim-blaming.

“Feminists have campaigned for the last few decades for the focus to be on educating men not to commit assaults, rather than making women change their behaviour to avoid being sexually assaulted,” says Hannah Bows, a postgraduate researcher at Durham University in England. “The concerns around these schemes is that it may do the opposite.”

So instead of asking whether women have a problem with safety, ask instead if men have a problem with violence. Why should all women modify their behaviour to protect themselves from a violent minority?

Eva Cox’s suggestion to herd all the drunk molesters into one carriage sounds vaguely ridiculous, because antisocial behaviour from men is so normalised it is simply part of the furniture.

If we put redheads in separate carriages for their own safety, we would have to acknowledge our society had a serious problem when violence was so common that one group required regular protection from another.

But do they work?

But do women-only spaces protect women from violence? Overlooking the fact that most sexual assaults happen in private, women-only carriages improve the perception of safety, which may explain their popularity overseas.

In India, entire trains known as Ladies’ Specials are reserved for women. In place since 2009, the provision has been well-received by female passengers who were sick of the regular harassment they received on packed commuter trains.

It is a sad state of affairs that women need these spaces to avoid unwanted harassment.

Other countries including Japan, Indonesia and Brazil have trialled women-only carriages too. However in Germany, a recent announcement by private rail operator Mitteldeutsche Regiobahn introducing women-only spaces on some of its services was met with criticism similar to that which met the RBTU’s proposal: that gender segregation was a retrograde step.

Bob Nanva believes there is community backing for Safe Carriages policy in Australia. “We have received an enormous amount of support for the proposal – particularly from shift workers who use public transport late at night,” he says.

Still, there is little long-term evidence to show women-only spaces are effective in reducing sexual assault, says Bows.

First step

Nanva acknowledges that women-only carriages won’t solve the problem of violence on public transport.

“There is also a bigger social issue which needs to addressed around violent and anti-social behaviour,” he says.

“To this end the RTBU is a supporter of White Ribbon Day and other initiatives to address violence against women across the community.”

Bows emphasises the importance of education alongside structural and social change – more women in government and senior roles, and closing the gender pay gap - to reduce the incidence of sexual assault

We need to challenge “the traditional gendered stereotypes and roles which subordinate women and empower men”, she says. “It is a sad state of affairs that women need these spaces to avoid unwanted harassment.”


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