By Anastasia Moloney
BOGOTA, Oct 29 (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - The mayor of Bogota defended his administration's efforts to tackle high levels of sexual harassment of women on buses in the Colombian capital following a Thomson Reuters Foundation poll on Wednesday ranking Bogota's public transport system as the most unsafe for women among 15 of the world's largest capitals.
Bogota and two other Latin American capitals - Mexico City, and Lima,Peru - were named in the poll as the three capitals with the least safe transport systems for women, with about six in every 10 women reporting physical harassment while travelling.
The poll surveyed more than 6,550 women as well as gender and city planning experts in 15 capitals and New York, the most populous U.S. city.
The poll, conducted online by YouGov between 27 August and 8 September, coincided with initiatives implemented by Bogota's mayor to improve safety for women on the capital's main red bus system, known as TransMilenio. The initiatives followed a spate of sexual assaults on bus passengers that made local headlines in recent months and heightened women's sense of insecurity.
When asked by local reporters to respond to the poll's results, Bogota Mayor Gustavo Petro said the number of reports of sexual assaults on TransMilenio buses had declined "dramatically". "The strategy consists in units of trained undercover policewomen going into buses and stations during the day and seeing who is (commiting the assaults). Immediately, they (the perpetrators) are arrested... This strategy is to mitigate the risk of sexual harassment on TransMilenio and what's certain is that the results to date, since the strategy was implemented two-and-half months ago, show sexual harassment in terms of the number of reports filed has declined dramatically," Petro said.
The mayor was not available for further comment on Wednesday following a request by the Thomson Reuters Foundation.
Manuel Gomez, spokesperson for the TransMilenio bus system, said the poll underscores the need to continue to fight violence against women on public buses.
"We're obviously surprised by the poll results since we've been working towards tackling crime against women on TransMilenio buses and any other bus user since a spate of attacks against women in March," Gomez told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a telephone interview.
"The poll will generate debate and is a strong call to tackle violence against women on TransMilenio despite the initiatives and public awareness-raising campaigns already in place and ones that we will continue," he added.
Gomez said TransMilenio authorities will extend the number of women-only carriages on certain bus routes during off-peak hours, while continuing to work with lawmakers in Congress to toughen the laws against sexual and physical harassment on public buses.
Despite such initiatives, the poll showed women in Bogota feel unsafe using buses, especially when travelling at night and have little confidence that police authorities will thoroughly investigate reports of groping or other abuse on buses.
The survey found Mexico City fared worst when it came to women being verbally and physically abused on public transport, with 64 percent of 380 women surveyed saying they had been groped or otherwise harassed. In Bogota this figure was 57 percent and in Lima 58 percent.
The poll results dominated local headlines and ignited debate on television and radio shows, as well as social media, about the safety of women using public transport.
During its lunchtime news programme Colombia's Caracol television network described the results of the poll as "a sad record for Bogota" and a "shameful ranking".
Some Colombian women have called for more empathy among bus riders towards women who have experienced groping and sexual assaults, including men exposing themselves and rubbing up against women.
"In Bogota, women are not only groped on TransMilenio but on traditional buses We have to report crimes and not keep quiet. We have to show solidarity sometimes... We have to change," wrote reader Patricia Moral in an online comment posted on El Tiempo's newspaper web site in response to a story about the poll.
Experts surveyed in the poll said overcrowding on buses and trains is part of the problem as it makes it easier for men to grope or harass women.
Earlier this year, the mayor of Bogota said plans to build the capital's first subway, which aims to ease overcrowding on buses and the city's gridlocked traffic, are in place. But questions have been raised by lawmakers as to whether there are sufficient funds allocated for the project to proceed.
(Reporting By Anastasia Moloney, Editing by Lisa Anderson)
Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.