- Priority carriages on underground trains have not solved the problem of sexual harassment for female passengers
The first time Wanda was groped by a man on a Beijing bus she was a college student, travelling to school in her gym uniform on a summer's day. Ten years " and numerous examples of sexual harassment on public transport " later, she is still haunted by the memory.
Now 31, Wanda " who asked to be identified only by her first name " remembers every detail of the incident. The bus was not crowded but the man, who appeared to be in his 40s, went straight over to stand uncomfortably close to her.
Then, he pressed himself tightly against her and began making a thrusting motion with his lower body. Wanda said she froze, terrified by the encounter and unsure how to act. Just then, the bus took a sharp turn, the man was thrown aside and she quickly moved away. "Afterwards, for a period, I looked at every adult man I saw as if he was aggressive," she said.
Since then, Wanda says she has been flashed at in public and, just last year, was forced to block a man with her purse when he tried to touch her leg on a train.
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Wanda's experience is not unusual but attempts to address the problem of sexual harassment on public transport in China have met with mixed results, as well as claims by feminists that they are restrictive to women.
Two major cities in southern China, for example, introduced priority carriages for women on their underground trains in 2017. Shenzhen and Guangzhou, both in Guangdong province, established two designated carriages " one at each end of the train " during peak times.
The carriages are decorated with pink stickers which say, in Chinese and English, "priority carriages for women" and, while men are not barred from using them, they are encouraged to leave them to women passengers.
While the authorities did not specifically say they were intended to prevent sexual harassment " saying only that the scheme was meant to "give more care and respect to women" " the carriages followed a precedent set by Japan and Europe for that reason.
Shenzhen is currently mulling an update to its priority carriages with an amended law designating them for people with disabilities and minors, as well as women, and only during rush hour. Other passengers who do not meet these criteria can be asked to leave by rail staff.
But, in reality, the restrictions on the priority carriages are seldom enforced and have been used by men since their launch. Furthermore, feminists say the scheme is a form of segregation, rather than an attempt to solve the cause of the issue.
One reason the priority carriages have failed in their purpose could be the size of the crowds using public transport each day. According to government data, there are roughly five million passenger trips on the Shenzhen underground every day and eight million in Guangzhou.
It is also hard for staff to enforce the regulation. "When it first came out, subway staff vehemently advocated for women to use it, so many people did," said Zhang Ying, a piano teacher in Guangzhou. Staff would hold loud speakers and gesture for women to get on the priority carriages. But now, everybody just treats it like an ordinary carriage, she said.
Zhang said she now rarely uses the priority carriages because of the inconvenience of having to walk all the way to the end of the train.
Women call for convenience in all areas, but (the government) only wants to draw you a little corner to play in.Xiao Meili, Guangzhou-based feminist
Feminists have opposed the scheme from the start. "The logic behind the scheme is wrong to begin with," said Xiao Meili, a Guangzhou-based feminist. "When noticing the dangers women face in public spaces, women call for convenience in all areas, but (the government) only wants to draw you a little corner to play in, signalling they still will neglect you in most places."
Xiao said the scheme was restricting women's space, even though it may appear friendly and loving on the surface. "Most of the sexual harassers and rapists are men, so wouldn't it be more effective to put these offenders in a limited space?" she asked.
A survey conducted by a group of feminists in Shenzhen at the end of 2017 showed that, out of 443 people, 33.9 per cent had been harassed on public transport. Of the female interviewees, 42 per cent were harassed, while only 6.1 per cent of the men who responded reported harassment.
Most of the interviewees were dissatisfied with the police response and 64.9 per cent believed police should be most responsible for handling sexual harassment in public.
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Xiao and others have repeatedly written to government representatives about sexual harassment on public transport. In 2016, Xiao's feminist group received 40,000 yuan (US$5,650) in public donations " just enough to buy an advertisement slot.
For two years, Xiao and her group tried to put up anti-harassment billboards in Guangzhou and Shenzhen underground systems. They were repeatedly blocked by the authorities in both cities who said the advertisement would "cause panic in public".
Since then, however, in 2018 Xiao's group have spotted advertisements in the underground services of Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu, some placed by news organisations and others by local governments. One advertisement in Chengdu, put up by rail officials, read "there's no groping hand here" with a panda icon. In Beijing, one advertisement says "prevent sexual harassment, be vocal".
Xiao said she was happy to see these changes, but described the current policy of updating the carriages in Shenzhen as an example of "lazy politics". There needed to be more than a pink bumper sticker on carriage windows, she said. Instead, policymakers needed to think about the actual mechanisms of stopping harassment and how to handle the culprits once they were caught.
"Women do not demand special care as if they are a soft and weak group," Xiao said. "They demand the safety they deserve and the right to travel conveniently."
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