Violence against women has been much in the news over the last weeks, as the world reacts with horror to the brutal gang rape, robbery and ultimately lethal beating of a 23-year-old physiotherapy student in the world’s largest democracy, India.

This problem of violence against women is international in scope. A similar incident took place in neighboring Nepal’s hilly region in May 2012, where a 21-year-old Buddhist nun was gang raped in a public bus by five men including the driver and his staff. Incidents of sexual harassment and assault in public transport are part of everyday life in Nepal although, like India, most of them remain unreported.

Nearly half of all Japanese women report at least one experience of being harassed on public transportation. The problem has also been reported in Hong Kong, Jakarta, and, not surprisingly, India, where nearly two-thirds of women reported having been the victims.

Common types of assaults ranged from annoying behavior (leering looks, winking, and gestures) to acts such as unnecessary touching, unnecessary leaning, pressed against, unexpected touching of the breast, brushing of thighs and bottoms, pinching of the bottoms, and pinching of the hips.

The World Health Organization estimates up to 69 percent of women have been physically hit or harmed by a male partner at some point in their lives, and approximately one in five women experiences rape or attempted rape during her lifetime.

Such acts are now properly understood to be violations of international law since the United Nations passed the Declaration on the Elimination of Violence Against Women (DEVAW) in 1993.

Among other things, the Declaration describes VAW as “any act of gender-based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women, including threats of such acts, coercion or arbitrary deprivation of liberty, whether occurring in public or private life.”

Often described as “micro inequalities,” women are more susceptible to unpleasant experiences both socially and psychologically when they become more spatially mobile.

Research conducted by one of the authors in Kathmandu, Nepal, found sexual harassment in public transport is experienced by the vast majority of women.

Virtually all (97 percent) of women using public transportation have experienced some form of sexual harassment, according to a recent survey of university students. The average young woman said she was harassed over 30 times in a typical year, with more than half (50.2 percent) reporting sexual harassment happens “all the time.”

More importantly, nearly two-thirds (64 percent) the young women reported form of harassment made them feel sad for a long time and it also caused mood changes and affected their relations with other people.

The harassers’ often target particular areas of women’s bodies—acts which would constitute the legal definition of sexual assault in Hawaii. For instance, a college going law student said “once a guy in a crowded bus held my breast tight and tried to squeeze it. I felt so bad; I could not go to the college for a week. I keep asking myself why I could not take revenge.” Another young woman said “sometimes I feel like I wish I can leave all my female private parts at home while traveling in a bus.”

The impact of these events is very long lasting. One of the students said “once, while riding a micro-bus, a man put his hand on my belly inside my jacket. I will never forget this in my whole life.”

Transit employees may also be part of the problem. One student reported that “the bus conductor stared at my breasts in a strange way. I felt very embarrassed. I covered my breasts with my bag. When I looked toward him after some time, he was still gazing. I felt more embarrassed.”

Despite their intense reactions, most of the respondents indicated they generally did not take any action in response. Nor do they usually share the incidence with others except with some close friends. Regrettably, they believe that disclosing such behaviors to public carries a stigma for them and their family. The very public outrage in India, though, gives one hope that perhaps at long last, the attitudes that have long blamed the victim, are shifting. Let us hope so. Women’s ability to freely enter and move about in the public sphere is at stake.

About the authors: Gita Neupane is currently an East-West Center degree fellow and a doctoral student in Sociology at the University of Hawaii at Mānoa

Meda Chesney-Lind is Chair and Professor of Women’s Studies at the University of Hawaii at Manoa. The author of eight books, she is nationally known for her work on women, law and crime; she has also recently been exploring the need for an international feminist criminology to engage the problem of violence against women, world-wide.

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