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ISSUE 121 VOL 11 PUBLISHED 2/22/2008

Buses provide sanctuary

By Rose Miller
Contributing Writer

Friday, February 22, 2008

In a move to prevent the sexual harassment common in its public transportation system, Mexico City has introduced gender-segregated buses. Beginning in January, four major bus routes in the city began offering "Ladies Only" buses. Pink signs sitting in their windshields indicate a safe haven for women and ward off men.

However, while this measure provides temporary relief for some, it only scrapes the surface of the bigger cultural issue of discrimination.

22 million passengers use the subway and bus systems every day, which can lead to situations that are sometimes too close for comfort. Close quarters, especially during rush hour, make it easy for men to grope and taunt women, only to get off in anonymity at the next stop.

City officials started gender segregated buses after women's groups complained of verbal and physical molestation from men. Although subways have long had women-only cars during rush hour, this is the biggest step the city has taken to prevent harassment.

While only a select number of buses currently run, the city plans to add 15 other routes to the program by April. This addition also includes plans to replace male drivers with female drivers.

The buses are just one of several new city policies focused on preventing sexual harassment. The Institute of Women in Mexico City is also introducing a public education campaign to make clear to men that sexual harassment is illegal.

Additionally, a new ordinance beginning in March will make it easier for women to file complaints about sexual harassment in public places.

Women have reacted to the these buses with relief; they feel more comfortable and safe. Buses are cleaner, less crowded, and more peaceful. Sandra Jiminez, 29, comments, "With this type of transport, I can dress a little better, wear skirts without anyone bothering me."

Others feel relief that they can let their guard down and no longer need to carry physical protection, such as pins, on their commute.

Men have had both negative and positive reactions to the buses. Some grow angry when not allowed to board the buses or are forced to wait longer. Others have welcomed the buses, feeling that they will protect their sisters, mothers or daughters from unwanted advances.

Could the buses, however, be too small of an effort in trying to change a culturally engrained attitude? Latin society is by tradition patriarchal and somewhat stone-aged in its views and treatement of women. Machismo, or overly exaggerated masculinity, is an inherent part of traditional Latin culture.

Gender roles are polarized -- women are traditionally seen as passive and weak, while men must be the aggressors, showing power and sexual control. Taunting women is often part of men's effort to uphold their tough masculine image.

Of course, this is a generalization. Public transportation seems to draw the shadier types, or at least foster an atmosphere that encourages this behavior.

However, machismo has caused other social problems in the past, proving difficult to eradicate from the culture. Government family-planning, such as public-sponsored birth control instituted in the 1970s, has taken time to catch on because of the same stereotypes about sexual roles. Some men felt that contraceptives would make them less manly, or promote infidelity if used by their wives.

Because cultural values are so deeply engrained, and thus take time and effort to change, segregated buses are likely to have little impact on Mexican men's overall attitudes towards women.

Although the buses and future policy are steps in the right direction to protect women from sexual harassment, four, or even 15 bus lines can only do so much. Outside of the capital, buses will remain coed.

Betsey Eudey, director of gender studies at California State University, believes that this segregation could in fact make the issue worse in the long term.

"Segregated spaces only enhance division by sex, and prevent the necessary actions needed to make public spaces safe and welcoming to all," Eudey argues.

By segregating the genders, authorities really don't seem to be addressing the core of the matter.

Rose Miller '10 is from Oakdale, Minn. She majors in English.

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