Women Suffer Harassment on Chile’s Public Transport

Perla Venegas is one of 1444 female bus drivers in the surface public transport network in Santiago, Chile, which aims at gender inclusion and offers job stability and shift flexibility compatible with family life. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

By Orlando Milesi (IPS)   

HAVANA TIMES  – Sexual harassment and discrimination are daily realities for women on public transport in Chile and also an obstacle for plans to expand mass transit in order to reduce pollution in several cities in this South American country.

Santiago, the capital, is the most polluted city based on fine air particulate matter among the large Latin American cities, according to the World Air Quality Report 2022, ahead of Lima and Mexico City, while five other Chilean cities are among the 10 most polluted in South America.

Sexual harassment is the most visible form of discrimination against women in Chilean public transportation, in addition to insecurity due to poorly lit bus stops, inadequate buses, and more frequent trips at times when women are less likely to travel.

Personal accounts gathered by IPS also mentioned problems such as the constant theft of cell phones and the impossibility for young women to wear shorts or low-cut tops when traveling on buses or the subway, the backbone of Santiago’s public transportation system.

To address these problems, the Chilean government and the Santiago city government adopted gender strategies: they put in place special telephones to report harassers and thieves, began installing “panic buttons” and alarms at bus stops, and incorporated more women in driving and security.

“When I was younger I suffered a lot of harassment because I didn’t have the character to stand up to the harassers. Now that I am older, I am able to confront an aggressor without fear, even when he is harassing another person, whether a man or a woman. When I confront them, they run away,” Bernardita Azócar, 34, told IPS.

Bernardita Azócar, in a subway station in Santiago, Chile, heads to her job in a collection agency. She says she suffered sexual harassment on public transport in the capital when she was younger, but now she is more alert to any aggression and feels empowered to help others who suffer the same bad experience. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

“It happened to me a couple of times when I was younger. They want to grope you or try to touch another girl and now I confront them. I suffer less because I’m more aware and I try not to put myself at risk,” she added during a dialogue at the University of Chile subway station in Santiago.

Azócar, who works for a collection company, said the root cause of harassment lies in education and in Chilean society.

“If you wear a miniskirt or show cleavage, society points the finger at you, as if you were provoking men and it was your fault. And I don’t think that’s why it happens. It’s abuse to be harassed in the public system…or anywhere else,” she said.

Maite, a humanities student at the Catholic University, feels that women are at a disadvantage on public transportation.

“When a woman takes a bus, she tends to sit next to the aisle to have an easier way to flee from any threat. Or she sits next to another woman so as not to travel alone. There are many things that women do that are not explicit. They are behaviors we learn, to get by on public transportation,” said the young woman who, like her friends, preferred not to give her last name.

According to Maite, “women can’t wear shorts or backpacks on the bus, or openly use a cell phone. Every time you get on the bus you have to take a lot of measures.”

Maite and four other classmates told IPS that they take a combination of buses and the subway to go to school and that none of them have suffered harassment on the bus, but they know of several cases that happened to their friends.

“If someone tries to touch me or crowd me too closely I don’t feel so safe,” said Elena, a commercial engineering student.

“A friend of mine had her cell phone stolen. I have not been harassed, but I would never go on the bus or subway in shorts even if I were dying of heat. I wear long pants because wearing shorts is a risk,” added Emilia, a psychology student.

The five university students in this group lament the discrimination women suffer on Chilean public transport and recognize that they have a “code of conduct” that they personally follow to avoid problems, such as not wearing shorts or miniskirts or showing cleavage, even in summertime, although it sometimes restricts their personal freedom. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

The joys and pitfalls of being a female bus driver

Getting more people to use buses and other public transport in Chile, a long narrow country with a population of 19.8 million, is difficult because 71 percent of households own at least one car.

The incorporation of more female bus drivers is aimed at a friendlier mass transit system.

Perla Venegas, 34, has been working as a bus driver in Santiago’s public transportation system for six years.

“I like my job and driving. The most complicated thing is dealing with cyclists, pedestrians and passengers, who are never satisfied,” she told IPS while parked waiting to pull out on the corner of Santa Rosa and Alameda, in the heart of downtown Santiago.

Her route connects downtown Santiago with the municipality of Maipú, in the western outskirts of the capital.

“I’m on a par with the male drivers, but I’m more cautious, not so aggressive and I’m a more defensive driver. I have been complimented several times, especially by elderly people,” said Venegas, who lives with her two daughters, aged 16 and 8.

“I have female colleagues who have been hit and beaten. I received a death threat from a passenger because when the route ended he wouldn’t get off. He was a homeless drug addict. It was 5:30 AM. In the end I found a carabineros (police) patrol car and I turned him in,” she said.

She added that she has had both pleasant and negative experiences and acknowledged that she is proud that her eldest daughter also wants to be a bus driver “although I would not like her to experience the hard parts.”

The Santiago subway is the backbone of the mass transit system in the Chilean capital. It makes it possible to reach 23 of the 32 municipalities that encompass the capital and allows passengers to combine with a bus network to reach any point of the metropolitan region. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Staying alert in the subway, the main means of public transport

On the Santiago subway there are 2.3 million trips on working days. Its tracks cover 140 kilometers on six lines, with 136 stations in 23 of the 32 municipalities that comprise the metropolitan area. Greater Santiago is home to 7.1 million people.

An additional 2.1 million average daily trips are made on surface public transport.

According to official statistics, during the first five months of the year there were 21 pollution episodes in Santiago above the maximum standard level and eight environmental alerts for excess fine particulate matter, so increasing the use of public transport instead of private vehicles is considered a priority for the authorities.

Paulina del Campo, the subway’s sustainability manager, told IPS that gender issues are a strategic objective in this state-owned company.

“We have taken the issue of harassment very seriously. We do not have large numbers, but we do have moments like March 2022 when the issue was raised because of situations in the streets and in universities that included public transportation,” she said.

After meetings with authorities and student leaders, the subway increased the presence of female security guards at stations in the university district.

“One of the things they said is that in a situation of harassment it is much more comfortable to ask for help from a woman than from a man,” explained Del Campo.

The company thus hired a specific group of female guards to receive and respond to complaints.

“Qualified staff respond and are trained to provide support for the victims. We can quickly activate the protocols with the carabineros police. When it happens we can intercept the train and often arrest the people (aggressors) on the spot,” said Del Campo.

In another campaign, a standard methodology designed by international foundations with expertise in harassment was adapted to the situation in Chile.

At the same time, the subway increased its female staff and the number of women in leadership positions.

“Two years ago we had a female staff of around 20 percent and now, in May, 26.5 percent of the 4,400 subway workers are women. In the area of security guards we have a staff of approximately 700 and of these 110 are women,” explained the company’s Sustainability Manager.

These two women are security guards at the Plaza Egaña subway station, on line 6 in Chile’s capital. The state-owned Metro company is increasing the number of women in its services as part of a gender policy that even includes the maintenance of trains. CREDIT: Orlando Milesi / IPS

Gender policies in public transportation

The Metropolitan Public Transport Directorate (DTPM) informed IPS that it aims to reduce the male-female gap in public transport.

It also plans to increase the number of women bus drivers.

The Red system, with buses running throughout Santiago, currently employs 1,444 women – only 7.6 percent of all drivers.

“Many women who have entered this field come from highly precarious and unregulated jobs, so this opportunity has allowed them greater autonomy and, on many occasions, to leave violent environments and improve their self-confidence,” the DTPM stressed in response to questions from IPS.

“This has meant an effort to train and generate conditions to keep and promote women who are part of the system,” it added.

Origin-Destination Surveys reveal that women are the main users of public transport and 65 percent of trips for the purpose of caring for the home, children or other people are made by women. They are more likely to make multidirectional trips and in the so-called off-peak hours, with little traffic.

According to the DTPM, waiting for the bus is one of the most critical moments in every trip.

“This is why we installed the panic button at bus stops and real-time information on the arrival of buses to improve the perception of security,” it explained.

The information is available through an application on cell phones, while the panic buttons began as a women’s safety pilot plan in October 2022 at stops in one of the capital’s municipalities. The plan is to extend them to a large number of stops in Santiago.

Read more from Chile here on Havana Times.