By Anna Louie Sussman
Tuesday, May 23, 2006
In Rio de Janeiro, women traveling on rush-hour trains can find a haven from sexual harassment in single-sex cars, a result of a law enacted last month. Even critics of the law acknowledge the mood in the "pink cars" is relaxed and cheerful.
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil (WOMENSENEWS)--One or two women-only cars on commuter and metro trains are rolling around Rio de Janeiro during rush hours these days, courtesy of a state law signed on March 8, International Women's Day, and implemented in late April.
Although a public prosecutor, Rodrigo Terra, has already challenged the law on the basis of Brazil's constitutional guarantee of freedom of movement, public opinion appears to be running in favor of the change.
"It's much more comfortable, without the inconvenience of men pressing themselves on us," said Carla Beatriz, 18, a nurse. "We feel more at ease. But they'll need to increase the number of cars for the large number of women."
The impetus for the law came from a steady influx of calls to a toll-free number that the state government offers for complaints and comments, said Deputy Jorge Picciani, who represents Rio in the state assembly.
On a recent weekday morning on the metro, which services Rio's bustling downtown and a few outlying areas, several men rode inside the car designated for women. No one seemed to mind.
One male passenger, Dr. Edison Heredia, 50, called the law "an idiocy."
"The state has much, much, much more important things to do than make pink cars," said Heredia, referring to the pale pink stickers identifying the women-only metro cars. "If we accept this, they'll make a car for white people, one for black people, one for hippies, one for skaters. Are you going to partition the whole city?"
He rode next to a female passenger and both of them were absorbed in reading material.
Heredia said he chooses the women-only car every day and has never heard objections.
"Because I'm cultured. The problem is with a lack of education and culture. And the lack of respect exists outside the car too," he said, gesturing to the platform.
Rio is the most recent in a growing list of cities to enact such a policy. Tokyo, Mexico City, Mumbai and Cairo already have women-only cars in some or all of their train lines.
An Internet poll conducted in March by O Globo, one of Brazil's largest newspapers, found that 64 percent of 2,288 respondents believed that such a law would reduce abuse and disrespect toward women.
Of 20 women interviewed by Women's eNews, the majority was enthusiastic about it. Many said they felt more at ease during their commutes. Five men were questioned and all disliked the sex-segregated cars.
The law was approved unanimously in the legislative assembly of the state of Rio de Janeiro, in a rushed procedure. Picciani, president of the assembly, bypassed the standard procedure and assembly-wide debate. Instead, he called the vote on the same day he submitted it so it could be approved on International Women's Day.
Deputy Cida Diogo, president of the Commission on the Defense of Women's Rights, a working group within the legislature, said the initiative came out of left field and that her group was not consulted either formally or informally.
"It was a surprise for everyone; no one had heard of it," she said.
Diogo believes the current government has not illustrated any prior interest in gender issues and that this law is insufficient to address deeper gender inequalities that remain in Brazilian society. The law, in her eyes, provides only a "false sense of security," because in order to be "protected," one has to travel in a specific car.
Diogo missed the vote because she was accompanying a minister from the federal government on Women's Day activities around the city. She attributes the unanimous vote to Picciani's powerful position within the assembly.
"There are certainly deputies who are against the law, but it's a question of internal political relations."
Critics regard the law as an election-year publicity stunt conjured up by Picciani to please female voters. While they acknowledge that sexual harassment is a serious problem, they say it ignores deeper problems such as poor security, insufficient policing throughout the city, a machismo culture and an inadequate public transportation system.
"With so many serious problems in the city, creating a law like this doesn't help us. Pure marketing," says Ana Paula Ramos, 32, a secretary riding the Supervia home from work.
"The law misses the point," says Rogeria Peixinho, director of EQUIT Institute - Global Gender, Economy and Citizenship, a Rio-based nongovernmental organization that works on gender issues. "It's more important to ask the question: Why is this happening? Sexual harassment is not only on the trains . . . We are trying to open up a debate, but the law legitimates sexual harassment in a way because it doesn't punish men, it just separates women."
Peixinho says segregation is an unconstitutional, antiquated and dangerous approach that will only aggravate problems of gender inequality, reawakening the war of the sexes.
"The law is anti-constitutional in that it discriminates against men and their freedom of movement. It causes anger because men are asking, 'Why do they get a special car?' And Picciani's discourse is not about solutions, it's about 'taking care of women.'"
Picciani rejects that charge and told Women's eNews in an e-mail that "anti-constitutional, in my view, is to send your daughter to travel with men who do not respect their rights and privacy." He stressed that the women-only cars are just an option for women and that the mixed cars are available anytime.
"The great achievement of this law is to call to men's attention that women want to be respected. Even if to show it, they have to travel with no men around," he added.
Angela Freitas, a long-time reproductive health and women's rights activist, doesn't favor the law but she acknowledges its warm reception by the public.
"We can't deny that the atmosphere is good, happy, relaxed, talkative," she says, referring to the women-only cars. "People are so eager to see that politicians care about them. It's a bad example of how people react positively to any policy that seems to improve their lives. But the problem is not just harassment, but also robbery and general lack of security."
On the Supervia, an above-ground rail system that links poor suburbs of Rio de Janeiro to the city center, the law is enforced by burly male security guards who pop their heads in at each station and, with all the enthusiasm of a flight attendant urging passengers to buckle their seatbelts, recite a warning to male passengers to move to the other cars.
Jorge Marcio Pinto Maia, a security guard on the Supervia, says he feels spread thin, since in addition to his general responsibilities throughout the train, he is also obliged to enforce the new law. He wishes Picciani would send a few state police to help enforce the law.
But, he said, the women do their part. If a man enters the car, the female passengers will alert him to his mistake.
"And sometimes, when I'm enforcing the law, the women applaud," he says with a grin.
Anna Sussman is a freelance reporter primarily based in France and Egypt.
Street Harassment Coalition:
Blank Noise Project: