On launching Brussels’ first rejection hotline, by Thomas Hermine

Thomas Hermine (1990) is the CEO of NextMoov, a Belgian mobility-centred digital agency who are behind the app NextRide, which provides real-time public transport schedules since 2012 for both Brussels and Wallonia. Going a step further, they’ve also recently launched a hotline with a twist, turning rejection into a lesson.

We’re a Brussels-based digital agency whose small team launched, in mid-November 2017, a low-tech solution consisting of a phone number – 0460 20 93 99 – that women can hand out instead of their actual contact details to pushy strangers insistent on getting their digits. When that demanding individual sends a text to the number, he’ll receive an automated response in the following 30 to 60 minutes which contains a few lines explaining that this kind of behaviour isn’t mere flirting but actually consists of harassment. Studies have unfortunately shown that women are often victims of sexual harassment in these settings, making their commute a stressful experience and a less desirable mode of transportation in comparison to the car. Since the issue of sexual harassment, violence and misogyny have, seemingly overnight, been turned into a global media obsession thanks in part to recent events such as the #MeToo campaign, we’ve come across two specific studies that deeply concerned us. They both state that while more than half of the Belgian female population have experienced harassment on public transportation at least once, this is a regular occurrence for more than 40% of women. We decided to take this as an opportunity to set up the hotline in alignment to our core values, technical expertise and community of over half a million users. At its core, the project has two clear objectives: firstly, to provide immediate help to those in need. Secondly, to shed some much-needed light on the persistent issue of harassment on our streets and public transport services. It’s a bittersweet outcome, but it seems that the former goal has been reached: more than 1,500 automated texts have been sent in merely one month since launching. We haven’t been able to devise a way yet of differentiating between real harassers and people simply testing the service out but we can say with certainty that half of the responses we receive in return involve some sort of acknowledgement of their behaviour, often apologetic. The other half responds with insults. As for the latter objective, almost every major francophone media platform in Belgium has featured our initiative, and we know that the topic is now an unavoidable issue for various public transport agencies. We still have a long way to go as a society for this issue to dissipate but we’re proud to know that we’re doing our part through the hotline. We believe that the long-term solution is to centre our focus on building better public transport infrastructures with a safer public space and fighting street harassment through education. And, as far as we’re concerned, our next step is making it accessible in Flanders too.