Transport for London and British Transport Police are taking sexual harassment and assault on public transport seriously, and to prove it they've launched a new initiative that will hopefully help keep women safer.
Project Guardian was created in response to TfL's most recent security survey. This showed that 15% of female respondents had experienced some kind of unwelcome sexual behaviour in the last year. 90% didn't report it, with more than a quarter explaining they hadn't done so because of a lack of confidence in the authorities to take it seriously or just not knowing where to report it at all. So three campaign groups – End Violence against Women coalition, Hollaback and Everyday Sexism – were brought in to help draft guidelines to train all 2,000 BTP officers in handling sexual offences.
Everyday Sexism has amassed a huge archive of women's personal experiences of sexism, 5,000 of which related to public transport. Laura Bates from the project told us
We were able to advise them of the very different types of harassment and assault women were dealing with on the transport system, from being followed and stalked to photographed without their consent between their legs, to dealing with graphic and unwanted sexual comments to groping and sexual assault.
We were also able to explain to them what some of the many barriers are to victims reporting, because under-reporting is a huge problem. We explained how on transport victims often don't know who to report to, and sadly how often the issue is so normalised and repeated that women start to accept it as just a part of life, and wouldn't necessarily realise they have the right to report.
The consciousness-raising aspect – not just for men to realise that this kind of behaviour isn't acceptable, but for women to realise it's not normal and not just one of those things – is one that Ellie Cosgrave agrees with. You might remember Ellie as the woman who blogged about being ejaculated on during her morning commute and, over the course of a year, grew so angry with what had happened to her that she went back to the tube and danced a form of protest; the video's below. (Incidentally, if you think this response was stupid or pointless, the New Statesman has a great riposte: basically, who are we to judge anyone else's way of speaking out?) Ellie says:
Initiatives like Project Guardian are an essential part of raising awareness of sexual harassment and assault in public spaces. The more people understand how to report incidents and the level of care they can expect to receive, the more confidence they will have in taking those steps. I reported my incident to TfL, but had no response. For me, going to the police felt too intense and scary, I really didn't want to make a big deal out of it. It felt easier to just move on, and get over it myself.
Knowing what I know now, how pervasive this stuff is, and how many people suffer in silence for years, I hope I would find the courage to report it to the appropriate authorities. Knowing that BTP officers had specialist training in how to deal with these offences gives me the confidence that I will be listened to, and treated with care and respect. For me, that's a great step forward.
What to do if you've experienced sexual harassment on public transport
BTP assured us that every incident that happens on London's buses, trains and tube that's reported will be investigated. You can find an officer on the station, call 0800 40 50 40 or text 61016. Project Guardian, with the attendant publicity, is going to run for at least a year but the training and culture change around official handling of sexual harassment and assault will last far longer.
Photo by Alistair Beavis from the Londonist Flickr pool.