Are women-only SkyTrain cars the answer to sexual harassment on transit?
Adding women-only cars to the SkyTrain would send a clear message to men that they bear responsibility for sexual harassment and assault, according to a Vancouver women’s rights activist.
However, Irene Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, executive director of Women Against Violence Against Women Rape Crisis Centre, told the Georgia Straight that she believes women-only rapid-transit cars are probably a “last resort”.
“I think it would be a really important message when we think about the backlash that women get when they try to identify that it’s male violence that is at issue,” Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer said by phone. “It’s about males changing their behaviour and the way that they think about women.”
Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer spoke to the Straight a few days after two Simon Fraser University students launched a website to share stories of gender-based harassment from public-transit riders in Metro Vancouver. Gender, sexuality, and women’s studies undergrads Alexa Dredge and Katie Nordgren hope their Harassment on TransLink site will lead to the regional transportation authority and the City of Vancouver taking action to make the transit system safer.
Women-only SkyTrain cars are one option that TransLink could conceivably consider.
In cities in Brazil, Egypt, Indonesia, Mexico, Japan, and other countries, women-only rapid-transit and commuter-rail cars have been introduced as a way to counter groping and sexual harassment. Typically, one car per train—distinguished by signage and pink colouring—is designated for the exclusive use of women. Some cities also have women-only buses.
A TransLink representative sent the Straight an email stating that the authority has not looked at the possibility of adding women-only cars to the SkyTrain. The email outlined a number of the "safety features" on the SkyTrain and buses, including surveillance cameras.
Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer called the existence of women-only subway cars a “sad commentary” about society.
“If that’s what’s working for women, you can’t fault them for that,” Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer said. “Because the question is: when will men change, and how are we supposed to live in this society until men do? And is that the kind of education that will spur men to make changes?”
Dredge, a 23-year-old North Vancouver resident, suggested women-only cars could lead to a backlash—and even more aggressive behaviour—from men angry about being excluded from those spaces.
“I’m not sure we would get behind that entirely, because it would be nice if women didn’t feel like they had to have a space that was only designated to them in order to feel safe,” the SFU student told the Straight by phone. “It would nice if there could be completely equal civic engagement and sense of community and sense of place, without having to create a segregated place for women.”
Metro Vancouver Transit Police have responded to the launch of the Harassment on TransLink site by saying they plan to kick off in December a campaign to combat sexual assault on transit.
On September 23, a man groped a woman in an elevator at the 22nd Street SkyTrain station, according to an October 23 news release from the New Westminster Police Department.
Hilla Kerner, a spokesperson for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, told the Straight that she has “mixed feelings” about the idea of women-only SkyTrain cars.
On one hand, Kerner noted that women-only spaces—such as rape crisis centres and transition houses—have proven to be “very, very effective” at keeping women safe.
“When women get a women-only space, of course they are safer,” Kerner said by phone. “Men have no access to those spaces, so they are free from attack.”
But Kerner cautioned that “public refusal to hold men accountable” for sexual assault means women-only cars could backfire on some women.
“I suspect that, if a woman is attacked on the regular SkyTrain, she will blamed for not using the women-only train,” Kerner said.
According to Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer, women-only cars aren’t the real solution anyway. After all, men would still sexually harass women on the street after they exit the SkyTrain, she noted.
“Life is more than just a subway ride,” Tsepnopoulos-Elhaimer said. “It’s about how we experience being women in rape culture.”