High Volume Transport

Vital transport research to ensure accessible, affordable and climate friendly transport for all.

Conducting surveys into sexual harassment requires tried and tested methodology and a detailed knowledge of local cultural values

Studies have repeatedly shown that sexual harassment on public transport is widespread in both the developed and developing world. But the data available to support these studies is often unreliable due, in part, to inadequate survey methodology. The HVT EMPOWER* consortium is developing a decision-support system to help design policies, programmes and tools to improve women’s personal safety on public transport in African cities and benefits from new, revised methods of collecting information.

The Empower project gathers information from surveys and focus groups to develop into the EMPOWER SHE CAN  tool (SHE CAN representing Sexual Harassment Engagement Changing Attitudes meeting Needs). This is a user-friendly online decision-support tool designed for urban transport planners and related stakeholders to give them a better understanding of the sexual harassment that women face when they travel in African cities. It aims to guide them from problem definition to a package of measures that can be implemented to counter them.  

Key to identifying appropriate, targeted intervention measures is having an in-depth understanding of local conditions and mindsets. In order to gather information GoAscendal, a HVT EMPOWER consortium member, conducted several rounds of consultation and data collection in Blantyre, Malawi. The first phase comprised a pre-pilot focus group discussion, followed by a pilot survey and finally, a main survey round.

Sexual harassment by its very nature is a highly personal and sensitive topic, therefore before conducting any sort of public survey it is essential that the methodology undergoes sufficient localisation and refinement. The research team looked at  key aspects during the data collection phase so that we could better understand not only what we were collecting buthow different tools and methods could be used to best  collect this sensitive data. One innovation was to collect information from the enumerators on people’s reactions (both men and women) while they were being interviewed and to document the number and sex of those who agreed to be interviewed, as well as those who refused. This gave us valuable insights into how willing people were to engage with us on the topic; the length our questionnaires should be and the phrasing of the questions. We also gained knowledge of how many  people needed to be intercepted in order to achieve the daily quota of respondents.  

Collecting information about sexual harassment through a survey is not easy, as there is a very short period of time to build trust with the interviewee whilst gathering meaningful information about their travel patterns and their experiences of sexual harassment. The results of testing different supports for data collection – paper and electronic tablet – both with the same questionnaire, showed that technology-based collection had significant advantages. These included a high acceptance rate from the random interceptions, fewer errors and quicker completion rates.

During the pre-pilot focus group, the data collection team met with the Young Feminist Network (YFN) Malawi to discuss a draft survey questionnaire developed by the HVT EMPOWER consortium. Key points of discussion included evaluation of the length, tone and nature of questions as well as the clarity of pictograms employed to enable survey respondents to efficiently communicate and categorise their experiences of sexual harassment. The output of this session was a refined and localised questionnaire, ready for piloting among the general public in Blantyre.

Since the primary intention of the data collection exercise was not simply to collect data on respondents’ experiences of sexual harassment, but to establish whether the collection methods were appropriate in terms of engaging the respondents and enabling them to fully express themselves, at the end of each survey, enumerators completed a brief questionnaire on their perception of the degree to which that survey had achieved these goals. This feedback was then used to refine the questionnaire further, before being deployed for the main survey round.

One key finding was that  the interpretation of sexual harassment varied substantially resulting in some confusion, especially during earlier testing of the survey. By following an iterative process of refinement, the final survey was considerably clearer than the first draft and as a result the quality of data collected through the final version was vastly improved. The findings from this process will be incorporated into the SHE CAN tool to provide guidance and to help cities make the right decisions according to their context, objectives and the resources available. 

*EMPOWER is a UKAid funded Action Research through the UK Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) under the High-Volume Transport Applied Research Programme managed by IMC Worldwide Ltd. The primary objective of the EMPOWER project is to establish a web-based Decision-Making Tool that will provide step-by-step guidance on the process of identifying the best measures to tackle sexual harassment on public transport.