Women-only carriages in São Paulo Metro trains: the solution to harassment?

São Paulo State legislators approve the measure after continued complaints of sexual harassment, but is this a real remedy or just a stop-gap measure covering up a deeper social ill?

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A women-only ‘Vagão Rosa’ (pink carriage) on the Rio de Janeiro Metro. New plans will see a similar scheme rolled out in São Paulo. Photo courtesy of Vermelho.

The Legislative Assembly of São Paulo State, the most populous and prosperous in Brazil, has recently passed a new law that will require train and Metro operators in South America’s largest city to run designated ‘women-only’ carriages. The move comes after continued complaints and allegations of widespread sexual harassment suffered by female passengers on the notoriously crowded trains, and will come into force within the next three months, provided the bill is signed by the State governor, Geraldo Alckmin.

The proposed law states that operators will have to provide at least one women-only carriage on each train, with the carriage to be decked out in pink to distinguish it from other compartments. However, the service will only be obligatory during the working week, with weekends and holidays exempt from the new rules given the lower levels of passenger traffic at these times. Rail and Metro companies who fail to comply with the new measures will be subject to fines, although the weight of this punishment has yet to be established by authorities.

Instances of sexual harassment on crowded trains have been on the rise recently and are behind this latest move, which is not entirely without precedent in Brazil or the rest of the world. Dozens of men have been arrested so far this year in São Paulo alone, and several reports by the weekly news magazine Veja (both links in Portuguese) led to the unearthing of a network of social media pages organised by self-proclaimed “Encoxadores”, a group of men glorifying the sexual harassment of women on the city’s Metro network.

While “Encoxadores” does not have a general meaning in English, it can be taken to mean something along the lines of ‘thigh gropers’, since coxa means ‘thigh’ in Portuguese. An Encoxadores Facebook page with over 12,000 followers, sharing photos and videos of female passengers being harassed and encouraging more men to do the same, was shut down soon after, but there remains a web of videos uploaded to Youtube and other social media, filmed by perpetrators and other encoxadores, with subsequent police investigations revealing the existence of at least 50 more similar webpages.

The work of the NGO Safernet, which specialises in issues of human rights and the internet, also found widespread evidence of a complex network of abusers and their supporters, leading to its director Thiago Tavares likening the modus operandi of these groups to those of paedophile rings. “They communicate using codenames, they hide their faces, and they exchange experiences on online forums such as, for example, the best time and place for carrying out these kinds of abuse, or how to film a woman’s private parts without being caught, and even what the most effective [recording] equipment is”, Tavares said according to one of the Veja reports, adding that for the encoxadores, groping women on the Metro and bragging about it was like a sport.

The São Paulo Metro system is notoriously overcrowded, especially at peak times, leaving female passengers more vulnerable to sexual harassment. Photo courtesy of Futura Press via Veja.

While the move by the Paulista Assembly is a response to an alarming and growing phenomenon, there are numerous examples from around the world of urban transport systems assigning special ‘women-only’ compartments to tackle the problem of sexual harassment, with programmes in place in Mexico, Japan, and India, among others.

In fact, the measure already exists in several other parts of Brazil, with the Metro in Río de Janeiro having implemented a similar scheme in 2006 and the Federal District surrounding the capital Brasilia joining it last year. It was even tried for a couple of years in São Paulo itself, between 1995 and 1997, but the scheme was discontinued after complaints from married couples who found themselves unable to continue their journey together, as well as from critics who claimed at the time that the rule contravened an article in the Brazilian Constitution relating to equality among citizens.

However, such initiatives cannot fail to attract criticism from numerous quarters, including from those concerned for women’s rights, and the developments in São Paulo can give rise to a renewed debate on the merits and pitfalls of adopting women-only carriages. On the one hand, introducing special compartments will, undoubtedly, lead to more women feeling comfortable enough to brave the crowded São Paulo Metro, allowing them to use rail services and get on with their everyday lives in the same way as anyone else, as is a universal right in 21st Century Brazil. Hopefully, it will help to bring down or at least curb the instances of such grotesque crimes as have been carried out and captured by the encoxadores and others.

On the other hand, though, there is surely also a case to argue that there should be more emphasis on shifting attitudes among Brazilian society concerning women’s rights, gender relations, and the sense of entitlement that far too many men still feel they have. Is ‘segregation’, as some deem the policy of gender-specific carriages to be, really the correct response to what is clearly a far deeper-running problem within society? Is there a danger that introducing women-only sections will only serve to paper over the cracks, while representing the division that exists along gender lines?

People protest against the conduct of ‘Encoxadores’, perpetrators of sexual harassment on crowded trains who have also been outed as promoting the practice using social media. Photo courtesy of Fotoarena via Veja.

As if to illustrate the outdated cultural norms that are still inherent among many Brazilians, a survey carried out earlier this year by the Instituto de Pesquisa Econômica Aplicada (Ipea – Brazil’s national public survey organisation) indicated that 26% of Brazil’s 200-million-strong population agreed with the statement “Women who wear revealing clothes deserve to be assaulted”. The results of the survey shocked many in Brazil, and surely adds ammunition to the argument that sexual violence is something that needs to tackled with clear and wide-ranging policies that stretch far beyond simply giving women their own train carriages during rush hour. What is needed, instead, is education and increased awareness about the extent to which harassment is present in public life, and why it needs to stop.

What is also needed, however, is greater justice in order to stamp out the sense of impunity and even ‘privilege’ that all too many perpetrators of sexual harassment seem to enjoy at present. For all that dozens of men have been arrested so far this year in São Paulo alone, this is likely to represent only a fraction of the true number of crimes committed. Furthermore, even among those arrested only a small minority are actually subjected to meaningful punishment: just two out of the 27 recorded up to the time one of the Veja reports was written. The reports quote one Paulista police officer, Osvaldo Nico Gonçalves, as lamenting that he and his colleagues often feel incapable of punishing the abusers, since “the law is feeble, and so they are allowed back on the streets”, adding that “if it were up to the police, they would be locked up, but it’s the judge who decides”.

Dilma Rousseff, Brazil’s first female President and seeking re-election in October, has weighed in to the debate, saying on Twitter: “I come to ask victims to not be intimidated, and speak out. And I ask the police not to neglect their duties of combating [sexual harassment]”. It is to be hoped that Rousseff and other authorities can use their influence to encourage a sea change in Brazilians’ attitudes towards sexual culture, and that in the not-too-distant future we will be able to look at São Paulo’s pink Metro carriages and consider them both a success and a fad no longer necessary in a more equal and respectful society.

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