When Janeth Parra got on a crammed bus in Bogota one early morning this month, she felt her bottom being groped by a man standing behind her.
“I insulted him but he replied he wasn’t doing anything. No one did anything to help,” the 18-year-old is quoted as saying in El Tiempo newspaper. She reported the incident to the police.
So far this year, 10 similar incidents reported by female passengers using Bogota’s bus system, known as TransMilenio, have put the spotlight on sexual harassment on public transport and renewed calls for the capital of 8 million people to consider introducing women-only buses.
Last year, 109 cases of sexual harassment involving women on TransMilenio buses were reported. The figure, though, is believed to be far higher as many women don’t report incidents because they believe no one will be punished.
If Bogota, which doesn’t have a subway system, decides to go ahead with women-only buses, it would follow the popular initiative already in place in buses and trains in major cities across Latin America and beyond, including India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Japan.
Rio de Janeiro, for example, introduced women-only cars on its subway system in 2006, while Mexico City’s women-only buses were launched two years later. More recently Guatemala City introduced women-only buses during rush hour in 2011.
I remember taking a women-only carriage in Rio de Janeiro’s subway a few years ago. It meant I could let my guard down, and it was less crowded than the mixed carriages.
But are female-only buses the best solution to preventing sexual harassment?
Bogota’s bus users have mixed feelings.
“I’d like to see Bogota have women-only buses so that I can relax and not worry about what a man might do. You get lewd looks (from men). I know I’d feel safer on a women-only bus,” Paola Pelaez said as she boarded a TransMilenio bus in downtown Bogota to get home from work.
Salud Hernandez-Mora, a well-known Spanish columnist for El Tiempo newspaper, recently wrote that the front of the TransMilenio bus should be for women-only during rush hour to separate them from “those men incapable of controlling their basic instincts.”
Others say installing video cameras on buses would be enough to deter sexual abuse, while others say women-only buses aren't the solution.
Segregating the sexes, argues bus user Aleja Saenz, doesn’t address the issues behind the high levels of violence against women in Colombia, nor does it get rid of a macho culture.
Introducing women-only buses would just be a gimmicky knee-jerk reaction by politicians to show they are doing something to tackle the problem, she said.
“Women-only buses won’t solve anything, but educating men to respect women might help more,” Saenz said as she got off a TransMilenio bus. “Women and men, girls and boys, we all have to learn to get on and live with each other. Real life doesn’t segregate the sexes and therefore buses shouldn’t either.”