In April 2016 a young girl died after jumping out of a moving bus in Manples, Port Vila, to escape sexual harassment from a bus driver. Barely a year later, a bus driver has raped a teenage girl on the road near Stella Mare while traveling to Teouma last week.
The police have issued a warning to all women and girls to be careful when boarding public vehicles in Port Vila, especially at night. Disappointingly, as usual, rather than telling male public transport drivers (or just men in general) not to rape, the police have advised women on how not to get raped.
As well as asking girls to note down the number plate, color and type of vehicle they are travelling on, the police have advised that ‘Students should try to catch a bus earlier after school to get home and young girls must not stay up late at night with friends to avoid getting into trouble.’
As an extra tip, girls can call the police on their free line 111 for help but are also encouraged to text or call family members for help if they suspect a crime will occur.
No matter how well intentioned the police statement is, it is this kind of rhetoric that insinuates that it’s the responsibility of women to protect themselves from harm rather than the responsibility of perpetrator to respect the rights of women.
Who knows how many incidents have gone unreported because women feel like it’s their duty to protect themselves and blame themselves when they fail to do so? It doesn’t help when authorities engage with language that places blame and responsibility on the victim and choose to support a narrative that tells women to ‘be careful’ of men.
By telling us to ‘Check if there are other passengers on the bus before you climb in and whether you know and trust the driver’, we are doing a disservice to the entire community.
Not all men, including bus drivers, are to be feared – so why are we normalizing sexual harassment and advising women to be cautious when travelling on public transport? Not only are we stereotyping men as potential rapists, we are promoting a vigilante response and more girls will start arming themselves because they will believe that sexual violence is a norm that we need protection from.
This does not have to be our reality.
Vanuatu has made commitments to protect the rights of women as set out in the Constitution and international human rights treaties. As men, we need to recognize that women have equal rights and as women, we need to fight for them.
In an ideal world, we would expect to see a police statement condemning the rape, promoting women’s rights and reminding perpetrators of the consequences of committing such a heinous act.
Our ideal world would also have the police and public transport authorities already liaising together to ensure that all drivers adhere to a strict Code of Conduct, which includes passing a police clearance.
Perhaps the Vanuatu Women’s Centre could even provide a workshop to public transport drivers to educate them about gender-based violence and kindly remind of their duty to provide a safe service.
It’s time we start hearing about solutions, instead of the misogynist fable that women’s freedom of movement should be infringed in order to prevent acts of violence.
Instead of telling girls not to catch a bus at night, why don’t we have designated nightly routes in remote areas such as Teouma, Bukura, Pango, etc? Let’s ease the congestion of the hundreds of buses in town vying for non-existent passengers and put them in service where it’s desperately needed. The lack of public transport beyond the town zone results in people hitch hiking, day and night, and if a public transport was provided, if only on an hourly basis, a much-needed gap would be filled.
Alternatively, us ladies can fill that gap by taking control of the wheel by literally putting ourselves behind it. A ‘Pink Bus’ driven by women for women is another solution to ensure our safety.
Furthermore instead of asking girls to call their friends and families if they are in danger, wouldn’t it be more appropriate to have a specific hotline to deal with this issue instead of private citizens? In fact, shouldn’t there be an entire task force dedicated to preventing harassment on public transport considering how common it is?
Ultimately, women just want to catch a bus without worrying if we’ll be attacked. We are going home, not going to war, so why does taking public transport always feel like a scary mission?
Until the police start taking this matter seriously, men like the bus driver who raped his female passenger will continue to perpetuate violence.
Why? Because they know if the police normalize violence and blame the victim, then this ignorance will absolve the perpetrator of any responsibility because society agrees, police included, that ‘she should have known better than to catch a bus at night.’
Time to change the narrative and start policing men’s behavior instead of women. Men should know better than to rape — that is the crime, not catching a bus at night.