Chile: Are Gender-Exclusive Metro Cars a Good Idea?

Photo: El Mostrador

According to the Observatory against Street Harassment in Chile, “9 out of every 10 women have suffered violence on the street.”

By Javiera Bruna (El Mostrador)

HAVANA TIMES – Three train carriages exclusively for women: this is the proposal currently being studied to stop multiple cases of harassment reported on public transport in recent weeks. The measure has already been implemented in countries such as Mexico and Brazil, and has been previously studied in Chile (2017), before it was dismissed for “not being feasible during rush hour.”

The idea has sparked a debate between those who are trying to put a desperate stop to street harassment and those who point out that the country is experiencing a political shift and greater efforts need to be made to tackle gender-based violence.

El Mostrador spoke to the Coordinator of UN Women Chile, Maria Ines Salamanca, and the representative from the Chilean Network against Violence towards Women, Lorena Astudillo, who assessed the measure and proposed short and long-term actions to erradicate the problem.

Within this landscape, the bill has received acceptance by public opinion, given the difficulty of implementing real measures in the short-term. Lorena Astudillo takes lessons from the pandemic and asks: “I would ask people if they really thought that a mask or washing your hands for 20 seconds could save your life two years ago, and we learned to do it because of how much we were told to do it. So, why is that when a girl says she was assaulted on the metro, we don’t all go and tell the agressor “you can’t do that’?”

Meanwhile, Maria Ines Salamanca believes that “these are actions that segregate, exclude and stop women’s free movement on public transport. While these kinds of measures are contemplated depending on the individual context of each country and levels of severity, it’s important to point out that these extreme measures given the impossibility of pushing other actions through that might guarantee a minimum of safety and violence-free conditions on public transport.”

The relevance of this measure

The appeal by minister of Women and Gender Equality, Antonia Orellana, was to systematize cases so that more dangerous hotspots can be identified and then, measures can be implemented on different timelines to erradicate this problem, based on this information. In this regard, the Observatory against Street Harassment has carried out statistical analysis that has allowed us to gauge the gravity of the problem. “UN Women notes the Observatory’s extensive work in putting this issue on the national agenda and compiling data about cases of men’s violence against women and girls in public spaces,” Salamanca says.

She also underlines that “it is thanks to this evidence that we know that 9 out of 10 women have said they have experienced some form of sexual violence on the street. Out of these, just over a third relate to cases on public transport. Furthermore, it’s important to take into account that 71% have had a traumatic experience of harassment, which took place when they were 18 years old on average, but cases of violence from as young as 10 years old have been identified.”

Regarding this evidence, the UN Women representative believes that “separate train carriages isn’t the solution to tackling the root of the problem. The symbolic sign this gives is important from the public policy standpoint, as this measure doesn’t correspond to an objective of what an ideal society we want to live in is. First of all, we need to promote a life free of violence in every sphere, pushing cultural transformation that doesn’t normalize men’s violence against women in public spaces,” she emphasizes.

In line with this diagnosis, the Network points out that measures adopted generally tend to enclose victims. “We want a cultural shift; we think it’s really bad that they want to put us, not the agressors, in three train carriages. The point is that men are harassing girls and women, and these molesters are going to have to lock themselves up with other men until they learn they can’t abuse us and that women can use the public space freely.  This is what needs to be repeated everywhere.”

Some degree of acceptance given international experience

Despite the analysis, the idea has been well-received given the urgency to stop the impact of recorded cases and with the argument of international experience in countries such as Mexico, Brazil or Japan, which would make it a replicated experience. In this regard, Astudillo says that “all of the archaic models that want to enclose up, and we account for half of the population, don’t work, they don’t make sense. Why do they want to lock us up if we aren’t the dangerous ones? The model was implemented in Mexico and we saw how Mexican feminists are still protesting against harassment, so we have to ask ourselves whether this model does or doesn’t actually work in this case. It’s like if you go into a mixed carriage, it’s because you want to be harassed, so this model has already failed.”

Looking at other models, Salamanca says that “analyzing the international experience of countries that form part of UN Women’s Safe Cities and Safe Public Spaces Program, we see countries such as Ireland, for example, that have implemented new safety initiatives in public transport where campaigns can be seen for public education and workshops for raising awareness amongst men and boys.

They also contribute more experiences, “other innovative gender-focused experiences on public transport at a regional level, considering the implementation of complaint offices and support for survivors of abuse on the metro, mobile phone apps to facilitate the immediate notification of incidents and, what’s even more crucial, training programs for officials to help survivors of abuse and other forms of sexual violence.”

Proposals from women’s and feminist organizations

For both organizations, measures seeking to limit women’s free movement in public spaces doesn’t seem like a plausible solution and they don’t guarantee long-term change. As a result, efforts need to focus on campaigns to raise awareness, prevent violence, educate people and civil cooperation.

In the short-term, Lorena Astudillo believes that “transversely” all of these measures need to understand that living a violence-free life is a human right. We have to admit that women feel safer when they are together,” she points out. However, “today, they’re telling us that we have to squeeze ourselves into three metro carriages. We believe we can’t continue to normalize men’s inability to control themselves and, if this measure is adopted as a last resort, the first three train carriages should be for men.”

Regarding long-term solutions, Astudillo adds that “it’s hard to know what the ministry is thinking about this issue, right now. Even though we know the minister and really trust her opinion, we also know that this forms part of political agreements and there is a difference between laws that are adopted to erradicate gender-based violence.”

Meanwhile, Maris Ines Salamanca comments on UN Women recommendations: “Based on the experience with the Global Program Safe Cities for Women and Girls, in the long-term, it will always be better to promote actions to prevent and erradicate violence stemming from cultural changes. Campaigns such as “Zero Tolerance for Abuse” are very effective in reaching this change in mindset, yet, segregation measures don’t correspond to an equivalent of this measure,” she explains.

Finishing off this interview, Astudillo highlights the importance of summoning civil society organizations and points out that “it seems like we have to listen to all of the proposals already made by women’s and feminist movements like, for example, beginning to implement gender-neutral education, eliminating stereotypes and this means intervening in advertising, in the media, giving guidelines on how to eliminate them. It seems like parity is more about contribution than numbers, and this progress could be important in the long run.”

From UN Women, Salamanca says that “we are making an appeal for all of society to commit to preventing and eradicating male violence against women and girls. Men also need to be agents of change in the process of ensuring people’s right to a life free of gender-based violence. As a result, all of society needs to form part of this strategy in order for cities to be safer for women and girls. Everyone is responsible for making the cultural changes needed to reach this objective,” she concludes.

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.