“You ask a woman, ‘Have you been a victim of harassment or violence in public transportation?’ And she will say, ‘No, not at all’,” explains Elisabeth Moiron-Braud. “But then you ask, ‘Has a man ever pressed up against you or put his hand on your bottom?’ And she will say, ‘Yes!’”
Moiron-Braud is a lawyer who worked on the report for the High Council on Equality between Men and Women (HCEfh) which was presented to the deputy minister for women’s rights, Pascale Boistard.
It is aimed at tackling the range of sexual harassment and assault on public transportation, from catcalls at bus stops, to groping in the metro, to rape in train cars.
The report calls these behaviours “manifestations of sexism” which affect women’s rights to feeling secure, and which limit their use of public space and their ability to move around.
The challenge is identifying the problem. Catcalls can be considered by women and men as flirtation; groping is seen as so common as to not warrant a complaint.
“Women are used to it,” says Laure Salmona, of the Association Mémoire Traumatique et Victimologie, a victims’ rights advocacy group.
She says that when victims do complain, “they are told they should be grateful” because they are receiving a complement.
On Thursday a television commentator posted on Twitter that being whistled at in the street is "plutot sympa", or "rather pleasant". (The comment was turned into a hashtag, #plutotsympa, that has been used by women recounting experiences of sexual harassment in public.)
Moiron-Braud says calling attention to these behaviours allows women to know their rights. She points to a law against “injure publique”, or public insults or abuse.
“Calling someone a bitch is punishable,” she says. “And that needs to be known.”
All women are victims
"One-hundred per cent of female passengers in public transit have been the victim at least once in their lives of sexual harassment or sexual assault, whether or not they are aware of it," says the report.
The startling statistic is based on surveys of 600 women used in the report.
The council considers this to be a problem of gender equality and Salmona agrees.
“When you live in a society in which a part of the population, women, is harassed by another part of the population, men, this becomes an issue of inequality,” she says.
Hers and other victims’ rights groups welcome the council’s recommendation of a massive public awareness campaign.
Héloïse Duché, founder of an anti-harassment campaign, Stop harcelement de rue, told RFI that awareness is important, because harassment “is a kind of sexism that is extremely anchored in mentalities.”
“Women keep quiet because they think it’s normal,” she says. “By showing that it is a manifestation of sexism, we can say no, it’s not normal, and we have the tools to fight against it.”
Besides an awareness campaign, the report recommends other measures like the introduction of a hotline that victims can call to report abuse, and the training for transport employees to better respond to complaints.
Women must have the confidence that if they say something, they will be heard.
“They must have the courage to denounce it,” says Moiron-Braud. “But to get up the courage, we must talk about it … It is not normal that a woman taking public transit be scared and feel the need to be discrete so as not to become a sexual object.”