In December, a Yahoo! Group for DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood, posted a message detailing a rape allegedly committed by an Uber cab driver a few days prior. According to the post a 20-year-old woman who used Uber, an “on-demand” cab service accessed via a smartphone app, was attacked, knocked unconscious, and raped by her driver after receiving a ride to her home in Cleveland Park. The incident, which has received only limited coverage, occurred the same week as the devastating gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on board a bus in New Delhi, India. The woman, who was raped by six men over the course of an hour, died two weeks later as result of her injuries. Many have been quick to attribute the New Delhi rape to India’s rape culture. Yet the Uber incident is just one of an estimated 200,000 cases of rape and sexual assault that take place each year in the U.S., a shocking statistic that exposes the scale of our own rape culture.
The CDC estimates that 1 in 5 American women will be raped in their lifetime. In December, the Metropolitan Police Department (MPD) announced that reports of sexual assaults in DC have skyrocketed, rising from 174 in 2011 to 263 in 2012. (Although it is important to note that these numbers may hint at increased reporting, which is to be applauded.) Just last week, a DC man was convicted of posing as a taxi driver in order to abduct and rape women passengers over a three-year period. In my time with the grassroots, DC-based anti-street harassment group Collective Action for Safe Spaces, I’ve seen the reality of sexual assault on almost a daily basis. Since it was founded in 2009, CASS has received hundreds of user submissions detailing sexual harassment and assault in the DC area. Often, these submissions incite floods of comments in which readers break their silence and share similar experiences. When photographer Liz Gorman wrote for CASS this past summer on her sexual assault while walking in a “nice” DC neighborhood, women in DC and across the country sent her hundreds of emails and messages in which they shared their own stories of assault. Later this summer, a woman identified as “Salma” wrote to CASS that reading other women’s stories of sexual assault empowered her to chase after her attacker when she was groped on the escalator at DC’s Union Station metro.
These stories underscore the unfortunate reality that the assaults committed by the Uber driver in DC and the six men on the New Delhi bus are not isolated events, neither in DC nor New Delhi. Rather, these cases highlight the high cost women pay when faced with a lack of safe options for travel. The past six months alone saw frightening examples of the threats women face to their safety while traveling. In September, a man threatened to kill a woman after she turned down his advances on the Los Angeles subway. In October, a bystander caught on camera a man sexually assaulting a female subway passenger. Even amid these cases, experts say sexual harassment and assault on mass transit systems are overwhelmingly unreported and generally pass under the radar of police.
As I’ve seen at CASS, when women report sexual harassment or assault while walking, many suggest taking the bus or train. When women report sexual assault aboard buses, many suggest calling a cab service. So what options are left for women and other vulnerable individuals when neither walking, using public transportation nor hailing a cab keeps them safe from sexual violence?
Luckily, there are solutions. CASS has been raising funds for over a year to secure funding to implement RightRides DC, a program which would provide free and safe late-night car rides every Friday and Saturday for women and LGBTQ folks. The program, which currently operates in New York City, was founded in 2004 in response to an increase in local late-night sexual assaults on women. In the last nine years, it has provided safe rides home for over 5,000 women and LGBTQ folks in New York City, including 1,000 people in 2011 alone. Driving teams consist of a driver and navigator, one of whom is always female. The program receives an average of 30-50 requests for rides home every weekend, casting it as a clear solution to a strong need for safe and trusted transportation. RightRide’s success is also evident in its plethora of awards and honors, including a Union Square Award for its efforts to improve the city, a Susan B. Anthony award for excellence in furthering women’s equality, and a Mayoral Proclamation, “RightRides for Women’s Safety Day” from Mayor Bloomberg.
The RightRides’ motto, “Because getting home safely shouldn’t be a luxury,” couldn’t be more true today. RightRides DC would offer the kind of positive, proactive response to sexual violence desperately needed in our nation’s capital. As Alexis Marbach recently wrote, the recent high-profile cases of sexual assault offer the chance to garner momentum to support solutions to preventing violence against women. It’s time we got to work.