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Politician Faces Backlash for 'Terrible' Plan to End Harassment on Trains

British politician Chris Williamson has been roundly criticized after suggesting that women-only carriages could stop sexual harassment on public transport.
Photo by Aila Images via Stocksy

There's a weary familiarity to the debate around women-only train carriages, which rumbles up every couple of years, usually when a male politician wants to present as pro-women's rights but can't be assed to work out any substantive policy of their own.

Enter: British Labour party politician, Chris Williamson. In comments made to Politics Home, Williamson said that there was a "merit in examining" female-only carriages, after statistics emerged showing that sexual offences on UK trains has almost doubled in the last five years.


"Complemented with having more guards on trains, it would be a way of combating these attacks, which have seen a very worrying increase in the past few years," Williamson said. "I'm not saying it has to happen, but it may create a safe space. It would be a matter of personal choice whether someone wanted to make use of it."

Williamson later revised his comments, telling the BBC, "I'm not saying we should go down this road at all, I'm merely suggesting that we consult on it."

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His comments echo a similar, widely criticized proposal that was floated by Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn in 2015, before subsequently being dropped after being excoriated by women's groups. Women-only train carriages did exist in the UK up until 1977, when they were phased out by British Rail as an outdated Victorian relic.

As in 2015, Williamson's suggestions were discredited by his fellow MPs. "My hot take on women's only carriages. Absolutely terrible idea. It is essentially giving up on trying to prosecute assaults," wrote Labour MP Jess Phillips.

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Meanwhile, only a quarter of survey respondents agreed with Williamson's suggestions. According to a YouGov poll, only 23 percent of those polled believed women-only carriages might help keep women safe.

Williamson's suggestions—while perhaps well intentioned—prompted some biting humor. "Why don't we consult on men only carriages, and those men who sit elsewhere risk police caution for harassment?" commented Labour MP Stella Creasy on Twitter. A sign was even anonymously stuck to Williamson's office door mocking his proposals. "Women—sexually harassed at work? How about working on your own floor?" it read.


Women's-only train carriages currently exist in Japan, India, Egypt and Brazil, where women's groups have largely welcomed them. But it's worth emphasizing that in the UK, a 2014 British Transport Police and Department for Transport report concluded that re-introducing them would be a "a retrograde step in Great Britain, which could be thought of as insulting, patronizing, and shaming to both men and women."

"It's great that we're talking about women's safety on public transport," comments Rachel Krys of the End Violence Against Women Coalition. "But women-only carriages are not the answer. They suggest that women have to change their behaviour to keep themselves safe and do nothing to tackle perpetrators. And what happens when a woman doesn't opt to use a segregated carriage—is she somehow to blame if she is then attacked?"

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The solution is to make our transport system safer for women—all of it. "This means training the police and staff to take these crimes seriously and intervene. It means CCTV operatives trained to spot perpetrators and intervene. It means designing well lit, open carriages where perpetrators can't hide and ensuring there are trained staff on transport and stations so if a woman is in trouble there is someone there to help," Krys explains.

But, most importantly, we need to take sexual violence seriously. "From education, to the media to the criminal justice system, perpetrators need to get the clear message that this behavior is taken seriously and will not be ignored.

"Only then will women have the freedom to get on any carriage they want."