Women stand together inside a segregated area while waiting to board women-only passenger cars at a subway station in Mexico City. Gender-segregated transit is on the rise globally as a response to sexual harassment but critics say that solution only punishes the victims. EDGARD GARRIDO/Reuters/Landov

Using a smartphone app, riders can report incidents and trigger an onboard announcement warning that sexual abuse will not be tolerated.

MEXICO CITY, Mexico—Carolina Gomez had an experience on a bus earlier this year that women in this metro area of 21 million find all too common.

Gomez, a university student, was headed on a long cross-town trip to a busy subway hub. When she boarded the crowded bus, she ended up lodged in a mob of people standing in the aisle. As the vehicle moved, Gomez felt a man press up against her, aroused. She froze. “It was awful and I felt overwhelmed about saying anything,” she recalls. Gomez says several passengers noticed the incident as it happened, but did not intervene.  

For women in Mexico City, riding public transit can be a treacherous experience. Seven out of ten women who ride public transportation in Mexico City say they have faced gender-based violence, which can include anything from lascivious looks to touching to more serious attacks, according to Inmujeres, a government agency that fights violence against women. The reality is probably worse, as city officials say only one of five victims actually reports the abuse. When the Thomson Reuters Foundation surveyed women in 16 global cities last year on transit safety, Mexico City emerged as the second most dangerous transit system for women. (Bogota, Colombia was first.)

Like Cairo, Delhi and Tokyo, Mexico City’s response to this problem has been to segregate women from men. Mexico City has women-only subway cars during rush hours on seven of its 12 Metro lines. There are also some women-only buses. But these restrictions often go unenforced and there is little evidence that they’ve done anything to reduce sexual harassment. They also essentially penalize the victims of sexual violence by relegating them to a second tier of service.

But there’s an even bigger shortcoming of the gender-segregation approach: It does nothing to change the underlying culture that lets men get away with doing what happened to Carolina Gomez. It also does nothing to change social norms that encourage those who witness such acts to turn a blind eye.

Is it even possible to change that culture? On one of the many thousands of public and private bus lines running through Mexico City, an experiment is getting started to find out.

Intervention without confrontation

The experiment is a pilot project of the World Bank, which sees transit safety as linked to sustainability—if more women feel comfortable riding public transit, then perhaps fewer will drive cars. The Bank is working with Corevsa, a private bus line that has been trying to distinguish itself from the chaotic market of independent buses known here as camiones by offering riders a better experience.

The pilot is called Hazme el Paro, which is Mexican slang for “watch my back.” The idea is to use a combination of technology, marketing and driver training to transform a 10-kilometer (6-mile) bus route connecting the city’s southern suburbs to its commercial core into a model of mixed-gender civility. The Bank has been tweaking the project for more than a year and expects to launch this month.

The technology comes in the form of free Wi-Fi on the bus and a smartphone app that urges riders to report any sexual abuse they experience or witness. The app will explain the different types of abuse, from unwanted stares to physical contact. When a user reports an abuse, the message will reach a central bus command that will pipe a voice message back to loudspeakers on the bus saying that sexual abuse will not be tolerated. “The key is to stop abuse without confrontation,” says Karla Dominguez, a transportation consultant in charge of finalizing the project for the Bank.    

Essentially, the app will give women and witnesses a way to speak up without provoking a potentially embarrassing or dangerous incident. Shomik Mehndiratta, a transportation expert who started the pilot at the Bank (and now works for Uber) says this is crucial to empowering bystanders to rise above the usual indifference.

“Generally what happens is if a man goes into the women-only section of the vehicle or makes some inappropriate comment then people might switch seats,” Mehndiratta says. “But if the threat level goes up to the point that someone actually threatens violence or there is violence, then the community comes together and people do participate. What we’re trying to do is see if we can do anything to lower the threshold before strangers will turn into a community.”

Dispelling myths

The second part of the pilot is an advertising campaign on board the buses that will target culturally held concepts about sexuality and abuse against women.

“We did a small sample poll on users of the bus line and are working with their answers,” Dominguez says. “The main thought among bus users was that violence happened to women because they were looking for it.”

With that in mind, one of the banners created for the campaign shows a picture that is reminiscent of what happened to Carolina Gomez: It shows a young woman with the straps of her backpack facing forward. Behind her an adult male shadows her ominously. The slogan on the poster reads: “I could be your daughter. Don’t be indifferent. Sexual harassment is punishable. Report it. I did not ask for it.” Other images used by the campaign include a middle-aged woman and an indigenous-looking woman.

The third part of the pilot is aimed at bus drivers. Two dozen drivers working on the pilot route have received a total of eight hours of training in workshops developed by Marty Langelan, an American expert on sexual-abuse prevention. In one of the trainings, the drivers, almost all men, were asked to role play as women facing real-life abuse situations on the bus. Drivers are not expected to intervene directly when abuse situations arise but have been told to call the police department and to hand out written materials to passengers.

“Eventually, they understood their role in the project,” Dominguez says, “how you have to try to not hurt the victim again, how you give them information and treat them with respect.”

The drivers themselves suggested to the project leaders an additional deterrent to men behaving badly: Equipping the buses with onboard cameras. “They felt this way perpetrators would know they were being filmed,” Dominguez says. The buses involved in the project already use computers to track speed, the number of passengers and other information useful to Corevsa.

The bank has a small budget for the implementation of the project so it has set up partnerships with various local entities.  For example, the modems for the free Wi-Fi in the buses were donated by the Mexican subsidiary of Teldat, a U.S. firm. (Each modem costs more than US$8,000.) To assess whether the pilot project is succeeding or not, a control experiment is being set up on a similar bus line without the interventions.

Shomik Mehndiratta expects a positive result. “Some sort of peer-group solution is likely to be the most sustainable one,” says Mehndiratta. “If you look at how communities have turned around crime in neighborhoods, it’s the idea of the community stepping forward and taking a role. Not just external actors like police, but getting the community involved and standing up.”

This story originally appeared on Citiscope, an Atlantic partner site.

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