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Introducing women-only carriages to stop sex assaults on trains would be tantamount to blaming the victims of attacks instead of their perpetrators, campaigners have said.
A row over female-only carriages erupted again after a senior Labour MP suggested the tactic could be an efficient way to stop the rise in sex crimes on public transport.
Some women and girls have suggested they would feel safer when travelling alone or late at night if they had the option use carriages without men.
But those at the forefront of the fight against sexual violence said resorting to segregation to tackle such crimes undermines efforts to promote gender equality and sends the wrong message to perpetrators.
Although there are no government plans for introducing such measures, the debate on the issue shines a light on the way gender or sex-related abuse is tackled in the UK, they say.
Rachel Krys, the Co-Director of the End Violence Against Women Coalition said that, by introducing female-only carriages, authorities would me turning sex crimes into a “women’s problem”.
“The issue lies with the perpetrators,” she told the Standard. “Not with women.”
She said that research carried out by EVAW suggests many women would feel that if they chose to not use the female-only carriage where available, then they would be seen to be inviting unwanted attention and possibly even assaults.
“We already have the issue that, when a woman is assaulted, the first thing they do is ask what they could have done differently,” she said. “So where would this leave the women who choose to use mixed carriages?”
Alex Regrutto, a 43-year-old Londoner who works in marketing, said the policy would be targeting the wrong people.
“They should be banning the men who do this,” he told the Standard. “They shouldn’t be hiding the women away – it should be the other way round. Everyone should be able to go on the Underground without feeling scared.”
Leanne Tool, a Detective Sergeant for Merseyside Police responsible for supervising sex offenders, said she thought the idea was “missing the point” of the issue.
“What we need to do is stop people from offending or reoffending,” she said. “We should be educating young boys more to prevent these sorts of incidents.”
DS Tool said two of the causes of someone becoming a sex offender are alcohol and family history.
“I work with sex offenders every day and one of the main issues we see is alcohol,” she said. “Some people who sexually assault women on trains are more likely to be intoxicated because it lowers their inhibitions.
“And people who sexually offend often come from difficult upbringings or have been victims of sexual assaults themselves and think that is appropriate. No one in that family has told them it is not the right thing to do.”
She said that many people who offend are likely to go on to commit a similar offence again and warned that keeping men and women separate would do nothing to tackle this issue.
But the view of some young women is that, despite concerns over the message it could send out, the concept of having a space where no men are allowed is a favourable one.
Ms Krys said that it was no surprise that young women would feel safer with the new carriages, but believes there are better ways to deal with the rise in sex crimes.
“Of course they would feel safer,” she said. “We spoke to young women who said that the level of harassment puts them off travelling around London so it is completely understandable that they would feel this way.
“We have developed a situation where young women are so frightened that they would prefer segregation. But this policy would make women less equal and less free to move around – which is not what we want.”
She said the best ways to tackle the issue head on would be increased staff on trains and better lighting, as well as continued work to build awareness around the issue.
“I think a lot of the increase in sexual offences is to do with work done by the British Transport Police (BTP) and Transport for London around awareness campaigns and staff training – so more incidents are reported,” she said.
BTP and TfL both launched awareness campaigns to encourage victims of sexual offences to come forward. One advert features the voice-over of several victims describing a man who has touched them inappropriately or pushed against them on a train – instances that are all too common for women who use public transport.
Such campaigns help with dispelling the myth that women who report offences will not be taken seriously, but many believe more needs to be done to prevent them from being targeting in the first place.
“We have already had CCTV operators trained to spot people who are going around with the intention of offending people,” Ms Krys said. “But we should have more people like that who are trained to spot the signs. And we need more people to be talk about this.”
The concept of women-only carriages was first brought to light by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2015 and resurfaced on Wednesday when shadow fire minister Chris Williamson suggested politicians should consider the move.
Citing figures released by BTP, he said the idea of having a “safe space” could help combat the stark rise in reported sexual offences.
According to the BTP statistics, reports of sexual assaults on trains soared from 650 in 2012/2013 to 1,448 in 2016/17. Authorities have previously suggested the spike is the result of police encouraging victims to report attacks.
Mr Williams pointed out that it would be a “personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of [the carriages]” but said there would be “merit” in consulting on the idea.
But his suggestions have been criticised by many politicians, including Labour’s former Transport Secretary Lord Adonis.
He told the BBC that women-only railway carriages is an “absolutely crazy idea” and that women would find it “grossly insulting”.
“Women would find this grossly insulting, the idea that they would be herded into separate carriages when the point at issue is a very tiny number of men who don’t behave properly,” he said.
“What we should obviously do is see that there’s no harassment that takes place in any part of our transport systems or indeed at the public at large, and not resort to panaceas like women-only carriages that women will find deeply insulting.”
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