Study reveals women’s health takes a toll due to sexual harassment

Science and Health

Women around the world who are alone on public transport including buses, trains, and taxis are frequently harassed by male strangers. This negative phenomenon causes harm to their mental and physical health, but little is being done by the authorities.

Despite being neglected for several decades and in many countries, public transport environments have transformed into a reflection of social disparities and inequalities. Among these issues, harassment – a pervasive and gendered dynamic – has been shown to impact women’s behavioral trends negatively, daily opportunities, and health impacts, as well as safety and security outcomes.

A meta-analysis led by researchers at the University of Valencia in Spain examined a set of studies analyzing harassment against women in public transport environments, with a focus on key issues such as its prevalence, impact on transport dynamics, preventive strategies, and policing avenues documented in the scientific literature.

A total of 575 indexed articles were filtered, resulting in a final selection of 28 original articles directly addressing the issue up to December 2023. Besides high frequency, widespread underreporting, and adverse effects on women’s safety, the review identified correlations between harassment and travel behavioral adaptations.

It also revealed a noticeable disparity between the existing measures and those perceived as more effective by potential victims. These findings underscore the pressing need to listen to and promote the inclusion of women in decision-making regarding transport affairs.

YISRAEL BEYTENU chairman MK Avigdor Liberman rides on a bus in Ashdod on Wednesday, after a recent incident of gender discrimination on a city bus. (credit: FLASH90)

The study suggested that, despite a slightly limited body of research, the impact of transport harassment on women’s health and welfare is significant. In addition to being largely explained by existing inequalities, transit harassment further exacerbates gender gaps, gaining prospective importance for transport settings.

The study has just been published in the journal PLOS One under the title “Invasion of privacy or structural violence? Harassment against women in public transport environments: A systematic review.” 

Many studies highlight sexual harassment against women

While the increasing use of public transport for regular commuting seems essential nowadays for many people who need to go from one place to another, many empirical studies highlight that sexual harassment against women in transit environments is a fundamental global challenge to overcome. 

However, despite the magnitude of this uncomfortable reality, many countries have not yet implemented preventive measures that contribute to increasing women’s perceived safety. Indeed, some studies state that no effective gender policies or compelling specific measures have been implemented in most public transport systems and transit scenarios around the globe. 

As a result, apart from influencing women’s opportunities to use certain modes of transportation and limiting their ability to move freely, sexual harassment contributes to structurally deepening existing gaps. For instance, females have been generally found to be more likely to use public transport for income-related status than men, as well as to simultaneously suffer victimizations, psychosocial impairments, and health threats in the transit environment, the authors wrote. 

Although the literature on this issue has gained ground in recent years, key constraints such as the lack of consensus, cultural bias, and the absence of a comprehensive approach to recognizing what behaviors and events might be considered instances of transport harassment remain active. Furthermore, the existing studies measuring sexual harassment, apart from being really scarce in most countries, are often limited in terms of methodological rigor and operational clarity. This lack of advance in terms of scientific coverage makes it difficult to achieve a better understanding of the prevalence, features, and possible solutions for this issue, as well as to recognize a deep issue that remains, in most cases, simply underreported.

Overall, some criteria have been proposed for the recognition of sexual harassment, including the unwanted nature of the act, the sexual intention of the harasser, the existence of a pattern or repetition, behavior that is intrusive and of a sexual nature, and the generation of threat or fear. Thus, gender harassment typically includes crude, offensive, and derogatory sexual behaviors that reflect negative attitudes about girls and women in general, and specifically, “unwanted sexual attention” refers to uninvited, unwanted, and non-reciprocal sexual attention which is not welcomed by the recipient. Likewise, the unwanted nature of the encounter implies sexualization, intimidation, and discomfort. 

Those unwanted sexual conducts comprise a wide range of behaviors that can be verbal (misogynistic comments, sexual gestures, insults, kissing noises, catcalling, whistles, sexual names or graphic sexual comments about appearance, other sexual demands or threats, and staring, leering, sexual gestures, indecent exposure, picture taking, public masturbation), nonverbal (e.g., staring, leering, sexual gestures, indecent exposure, picture taking, public masturbation. These often persist after the woman rejects such advances. 

“These acts are related to traditional gender roles that still exist in many societies and the ‘macho’ culture derived from this social phenomenon. For example, in societies where masculinity is narrowly defined and associated with dominance and control, harassment of women in public transportation can occur as a way for harassers to reaffirm their power and control over women in a shared space,” they wrote. 

Public transport is prone to harassment situations towards women because the high passenger density in confined spaces creates a conducive environment for unwanted behaviors, as physical proximity can increase the opportunity for harassment. The lack of privacy in these shared spaces can make victims feel more vulnerable and less likely to report incidents. Additionally, the team concluded that the hierarchical structure and design of some public transportation systems can facilitate impunity, allowing harassers to blend into the crowd and escape identification easily.