This article is written by Sarah Rebryna, a practicum student with Women's Initiative Edmonton.
It’s likely that if I were to stand out on the street and survey the women passing by asking them if they have ever experienced sexual harassment on the street or on public transit a significant number of them would reply “no.” However, it is more likely that close to 100% of women have experienced sexual harassment while out in public. A study out of France found just that. Of the 600 women surveyed 100% of them reported that they had been subjected to sexual harassment while using Paris’ metro system. When considering the alarmingly low number of only 6% of sexual assaults reported according to Statistics Canada (and if I had to guess I imagine the number is even lower for reports of sexual harassment) and the 100% “yes” response in the France study, these numbers both reveal how prevalent sexual harassment is in today’s modern and assumed ‘progressive’ society.
So what counts as sexual harassment then? Sexual harassment is commonly defined as unwanted verbal comments, staring, leering, touching, groping, exposure and public masturbation (Fileborn, 2013). It is important that this definition becomes widely known so that women and all genders know that any unwanted acts, whether verbal or physical, can and should be reported and not tolerated. Often times women just brush off verbal comments and casual groping as “not that bad” and essentially just part of “life as a woman.”
Although sexual harassment on the street and on public transit affects all women, it is especially problematic for marginalized women (ethnic/racial minorities, low socio-economic status, and women with disabilities). These women often do not have access to alternative modes of transportation and staying home is neither economically, socially, nor humanly feasible. To stay home would limit these women’s participation in education, work, and social events, ultimately decreasing their quality of life.
This is simply unacceptable. A societal norm that barely blinks an eye at sexual harassment and dare I say is accepting of it, seems deeply flawed to me.
Heloise Duche, founder of Stop harcelement de rue (Stop street harassment) counters this normalcy. “Women keep quiet because they think it’s normal,” she says. “By showing that it is a manifestation of sexism, we can say no, it’s not normal, and we have the tools to fight against it.”
The messaging that the onus is on women to prevent sexual harassment is still all too prevalent. The few women who actually report incidences of sexual harassment or sexual assault are often left feeling ashamed and discouraged from reporting in the future as they are typically questioned on their attire, their behavior, and whether they had consumed alcohol or drugs. This isn’t right. The questions should be focused on details about the attacker, not the survivor. Therefore, it is imperative that police and peace officers receive adequate victim-centered and sensitivity training.
This is exactly what 68% of respondents to a Hollaback! Alberta survey on sexual harassment indicated would encourage them to report incidences of sexual harassment. One respondent commented on why they hadn’t reported their incidence of sexual harassment to the authorities.
“The attitude that this harassment isn’t really a big deal by authorities; i.e. I don’t feel like trying to convince authorities that it’s not ok for me to be harassed.”
In February 2015 Councillor Bev Esslinger reached out to Edmonton women, soliciting their feedback on how safe they felt using public transit. I think this is a good first step in drawing public awareness around the fact that women’s safety is a concern and one in which the City is acknowledging.
Proposed “solutions,” which suggest that there should be women-only buses and cars on the LRT are further examples of putting the onus of the prevention of sexual harassment on women. This “solution” only serves to reinforce the norm that women are responsible for incidences of sexual harassment and assault against them. Women are expected to safeguard themselves while men are removed from the equation (The Georgia Straight).
So, what do I propose? I think more public advertising on the issue of sexual harassment and assault is needed. This advertising should reinforce the fact that sexual harassment and assault are not acceptable and they will not be tolerated in Edmonton. The advertising messages could include things like:
- Reinforcing the notion that regardless of circumstance/context, no one is entitled to women’s bodies;
- Encouraging people to report instances of sexual harassment both for their benefit and the benefit of others who may be victimized in the future;
- Providing contact information for EPS, SACE, Transit Peace Officers (TPO), etc.; and
- Drawing attention to the Transit information on edmonton.ca, which details current safety measures available. I think a City program similar to the U of A and Grant MacEwan University's’ Safe Walk program would be beneficial for Edmontonians travelling alone at night. Also, during late night hours there should be two TPOs stationed at each of the greater distanced and higher incidents of report transit stations (Clareview, Belvedere, Coliseum, Stadium, Grandin, and Century Park).
Cities including Boston, New York City, Washington, Vancouver and London, England have all launched successful public service announcements (PSAs) over the last few years. These campaigns use messaging targeted at potential perpetrators.
To truly address this issue, the City can engage with Edmonton women through various types of public consultations, in addition to surveys asking women for their input on the safety issues that affect them and assessing women’s ridership. The current transit schedules often cater to men’s schedule, which is typically 9-5. Women’s schedules are often much more varied as they tend to still be largely responsible for domestic upkeep, things like grocery shopping, dropping kids off and picking them up from daycare, school, and/or various extracurriculars (Lambrick et al., 2010; Loukaitou-Sideris , 2013; UN Women, 2012).
The good news is that the ball is in motion. WAVE, the Edmonton Students’ Alliance, and Mari Chartier presented to the Transit Council Committee and a motion was successfully passed detailing the proposed suggestions by WAVE and the other presenters.
Councillor Bev Esslinger, WAVE, the Edmonton Students’ Alliance, and Mari Chartier were well received by Council’s Transportation Committee. The City of Edmonton Transit Department immediately got to work on creating a new Transit Safety survey with the proposed changes and recommendations included. In addition, the misleading/confusing signage and messaging on Transit buses and LRT cars was promptly updated to more passenger-friendly/accessible language. The Transit PR that WAVE member Dr. Cristina Stasia championed and presented to the Transit Council has successfully been implemented on Edmonton Transit buses and LRT cars. I am personally impressed by Edmonton’s Transit Department’s prompt action in dealing with this very serious issue. This issue is by no means resolved, but it is being taken seriously, now, and the City of Edmonton Transit Department has promised comprehensive training programs will be developed and delivered to all Transit staff and will be part of the City of Edmonton’s Strategic Priorities moving forward to “create a Transit Strategy that supports Edmonton’s future as a great city.” You can find out more by following this link: http://www.edmonton.ca/transportation/transit-strategy.aspx
This is hopefully the first of many steps the City will take in its commitment to transit safety for all and particularly for women and gender minorities. Councillor Bev Esslinger got the conversation started; let’s ensure the message stays strong!
Fileborn, B. (2013). Conceptual understandings and prevalence of sexual harassment and street
harassment [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www3.aifs.gov.au/acssa/pubs/index.html
Lambrick, M., Rainero, L., Andrew, C., Canuto, M., Caril, V., Klodawsky, F., Sabordino, M., … (2010). Safe cities [PDF document]. Retrieved from http://www.endvawnow.org/en/modules/view/12-safe-cities.html
Loukaitou-Sideris, A. (2013). Fear and safety in transit environments from the women’s perspective [PDF document]. Retrieved from https://www.kth.se/polopoly_fs/1.427041!/Menu/general/column-content/attachment/Loukaitou-Sideris_2013%20%5BCompatibility%20Mode%5D.pdf
UN Women. (2012). Safe public transit for women and girls. Retrieved from