Even in such a car-dependent country – many people get around using buses, taxis or walking. It’s also one of the most common denominators for sexual assault in Malta.
“A taxi driver touched my thigh repeatedly. When I asked him to stop he didn’t, I got out of the taxi at a red light before he could lock the doors,” a British woman in her 20s recalled.
This is the third part of a multi-article series shedding light on victims’ stories of sexual harassment and abuse in the country – from rape to micro-aggressions, stalking, threats and digital abuse. Here are their stories.
Lovin Malta received hundreds of testimonies of women, men and non-binary people who experienced different forms of sexual abuse. One thing emerged in plain sight – it’s an extremely common affair and transport is a hot spot for assaults.
A Maltese woman in her 20s described the horror of being assaulted and held against her will on a bus.
“I was groped and wasn’t allowed to leave the bus without sharing my phone number. He followed me home. I was too shocked, scared and ashamed to tell anyone, not even family. I kept telling myself to move on and simply learn from it.”
Some wonder why the overwhelming majority of victims chose not to report. Often there’s a persisting fear of shame, not being taken seriously or retaliation.
This is what exactly happened to one 20-year-old Maltese woman when she decided to divulge the details of her trauma to a close friend.
“I was inappropriately touched on a bus when I was a child. I felt such shame and embarrassment. I told a close male friend about the incident months later and he laughed in my face, insinuating it wouldn’t have happened if I walked off the bus or slapped him,” she said.
Assaults on buses aren’t just physical. Dozens of people said they were forced to face aggressors who pleasured themselves in front of them.
“When I was 16, I was on a bus that wasn’t very busy. A man pulled his trousers down and began to masturbate at me. I was shocked and didn’t know what to do, so I just got off the bus and cried,” a woman, now in her 30s said.
“I was at a bus stop late at night and it was just me and another man. He pulled down his pants and started doing provocative things to try to get my attention. As soon as I tried moving away he started following me, pants still down, until he noticed that people we coming our way,” another 20-year-old woman wrote.
Sexual harassment on buses is a regular, uncouth phenomenon and happens to people of all ages, including children.
“A flasher intentionally exposed himself on a bus when I was six. It’s imprinted in my mind,” a non-binary person, now in their 20s said.
Aggressors aren’t just passengers, with sexual favours often expected when victims are at their most vulnerable.
“I didn’t have money to get home. A bus driver let me on a bus for free and then later expected me to kiss him or perform oral sex on him in return,” an 18-year-old Maltese woman recalled.
“When I was a little younger, I got onto a bus wearing a bralette and open shirt in summer. The bus driver told me I was inappropriately dressed and reached out to try to ‘fix’ my clothes touching me in the process,” a Maltese woman, now in her 30s said.
Arguably the most common kind of sexual harassment is cat-calling and getting explicitly sexual remarks.
An 18-year-old Maltese woman recalled getting cat-called as she got off a bus.
“I got off a bus at Msida. I noticed a man looking at me. He caught my eye and said ‘you better run because if I get you, I’ll fuck you’. I was petrified.”
Many think cat-calling only happens to women. While most cases are reported by women, men do experience sexual abuse, but often refrain from telling anyone out of fear of humiliation.
“When I walked to school, people would call me a ‘pufta’ out their windows or from the school bus because I’m not a typical manly man,” a 20-year-old man said.
“Once, I was walking down the street with my girlfriend when a girl literally just grabbed my dick with her girlfriends laughing and told me “wanna fuck?” … I was surprised, I didn’t know such harassment happened to men,” another man, 18, said.
Buses, when filled with passengers, can offer refuge for people exposed to sexual assault, through strength in numbers. It tends to be another story when it comes to taxis.
“Once, a taxi driver asked me a lot of intrusive questions – my age, if I have a boyfriend etc. He said I must be “a very naughty girl” because I have big breasts. Mind you I was wearing trousers and a normal top. I had to call my boyfriend because I was terrified that he’d try to come onto me,” a Maltese woman in her mid-20s said.
While she didn’t report to the police, she said she never got into a taxi alone again.
A German woman, now in her 40s, described a “creepy” encounter after hailing a cab from Paceville at night.
“In 2013, a Maltese white-cab taxi driver asked me for sex after he drove me home late at night from Paceville. It was super creepy. I never took another white cab alone since.”
“I got into a taxi and the driver switched off the meter. He kept asking me to come over to his house. He locked the doors and didn’t let me leave until I kissed him on the cheek,” another Maltese woman in her 20s said.
Some respondents even reported being hurled abuse or being assaulted while walking.
“When I was 14, I was on my way home walking back from a friend’s house, half asleep in my pyjamas when I noticed two men walking behind me. I pretended to be on the phone with my father – even though I never lived with him, hoping a male figure would ‘scare’ them off. It didn’t.”
Every night, she walked with her keys in between her knuckles. That night, she clenched her fist tighter as they walked close.
“They were shouting, making kissing noises to get my attention. They got so close that they pulled my hair, I turned around and kneed one of them in the balls and ran as fast as I could. Now I walk around with pepper spray attached to my keys, you’d be surprised how many times this can happen to a woman.”
A 35-year-old female respondent remembers a traumatic event as a schoolgirl.
“I was 12 years old when I was going home from school minding my own business. As I was walking, an old man stuck his hand up my skirt and touched my crotch and kept on walking,” she said.
Others were assaulted in broad daylight.
“I was just leaving my parents’ home during the day when a van was driving in the direction I was walking, and they started honking and shouting out suggestive things in Maltese. Then one of them, whilst in the moving van, perched out of the window and tried to grab my breasts. I stepped back but I was left completely horrified,” a 20-year-old said.
One Hungarian woman couldn’t get the image of what could’ve happened when a car stalked her out of her mind.
“A couple of years ago I was walking in Birkirkara to my boyfriend’s flat, and I noticed that a car has already passed me several times. I started paying attention and the car kept going around in the area where I was walking, staring and me and cat-calling whenever it passed me.
“Naturally, considering that he was in a vehicle that he could potentially push me into, I got scared and started to call my boyfriend to come for me.
“I ended up reaching the flat without physical harm, but I kept looking behind me looking for that car for weeks.”
Sexual harassment on public transport is a massively underestimated phenomenon and leaves a huge impact on the daily lives of victims. An EU-wide survey reported that more than half (55%) of women in the union had experienced sexual harassment, often in public spaces and while taking public transport.
While it affects all people of all walks of life, women are often most prone to be victims of sexual assault. Studies in France found that 90% of women reported being sexually harassed while commuting, while half said they changed the way they dressed and travelled because of it.
Although no such nation-wide survey has been conducted in Malta, enough people have shared their own traumatic experiences to confirm it is a critical issue.
While sexual harassment is an issue stemming from cultural and social factors beyond the control of operators of buses and taxis, there are measures that can help transit users feel safer.
Firstly, widespread education campaigns and training against sexual harassment can help raise awareness of how serious the issue is and encourage victims and witnesses to report incidents to police. Some victims don’t even know they’re a victim of a sexual offence, so campaigns could empower them to understand what behaviours constitute these crimes.
Another useful tool is more onboard surveys. Bus operators as well as Malta’s most popular taxi apps can understand the extent of sexual harassment if they conduct systematic surveys asking passengers about their experiences. Questions should ask about their onboard experiences and also transit spots.
Lastly, more police enforcement of sexual harassment laws will help send a clear message to aggressors to think twice before hurling a sexual comment or groping a victim at a bus stop.
We’re a long way from eradicating the virus of sexual abuse. But a clear, pro-active plan to lift survivors and clamp down on aggressors is the first step to justice.
Malta Public Transport is calling on commuters to reach out if they experience sexual harassment on buses.
“The safety of our passengers is our top priority. We strongly believe that all passengers have the right to travel safely. We encourage all people who encounter any unwanted sexual advances or attacks to come forward and report these incidents to the company and to the authorities,” a spokesperson told Lovin Malta.
While it acknowledged that it takes a lot of courage to come forward, Malta Public Transport assured passengers that every case is treated with the strictest confidentiality and is adamant about making the whole experience as safe as possible.
“In cases like these, we would like to offer our assurance that these cases are treated in strictest confidence and are given immediate attention. We would also like to remind all passengers that all buses are equipped with a CCTV system, and footage is always passed on to the authorities when requested for investigations. The company also has a zero-tolerance policy when it comes to any sort of sexual assault by employees.”
If you have suffered sexual assault, whether it was recently or not, and would like free professional emotional support or legal assistance, get in touch with Victim Support Malta on + 356 2122 8333 or send an email on [email protected].
These are just some of the hundreds of personal, anonymous testimonies of sexual harassment victims have experienced in Malta. This series aims to give a voice to victims and empower them to break their silence to kick-start action.
Have you ever been sexually assaulted on public transport?