In this blog post to mark International Women’s Day, Ann Keeling, member of the Technical Advisory Panel for the UK-funded High Volume Transport (HVT) programme, highlights how HVT inclusive of women’s needs can change the life chances of women and girls and benefit everyone. Ann has over 30 years of experience in international development focusing on gender equality, health and social change.
Working for the UN in Pakistan in the late 1990s, I never used public transport. At that time, public transport in Pakistan’s major cities was a mix of buses, minibuses, battered taxis and rickshaws (motorised and bicycle). Road traffic also included cars, highly decorated trucks, horse drawn vehicles, a few bicycles and the occasional cart drawn by a tall and menacing camel.
People — especially poor men and women — walked for miles, despite the searing heat and it was not unusual to see people with severe disabilities pulling themselves along the road on wheeled wooden platforms like roughly constructed skateboards.
Only a small percentage of women worked in the formal paid labour market, less than half the country’s girls attended primary school, and maternal and infant mortality were high. Getting to work and school was a major challenge for women and girls in a society that already placed cultural restrictions on women’s mobility outside the home.
Boys in school uniform used public transport, clinging precariously to ladders on the sides of speeding buses or perched on the roof. Buses slowed but didn’t come to a complete halt for passengers to get on and off. Minibuses were smaller and some drivers reserved seats in the front row for women. But once those seats were full, the driver would not stop to pick up women, leaving them standing in the heat and dust at the side of the road.
There was no chance that a woman with children, an older person or anyone with a disability could navigate such buses and minibuses. And to add to their exclusion, any girl or woman who braved the bus, faced sexual harassment and assault. Not surprising that families were reluctant to send girls to school on public transport, widening educational inequality not only between men and women but also between girls from poor families and richer families with private cars and drivers.
When UNDP’s Gender Unit held consultations with women in Pakistan in 1998, mobility and safe transport was one of their top priorities. We worked with a female entrepreneur launching a new fleet of city buses to make them a safe and dignified form of public transport for women and men.
All drivers were trained in gender awareness and a moveable bar was added across the middle of the bus to mark the front section, accessed through the front door, for women and children only. The back section, accessed through the back door, was for men. The bar was moveable so the driver could adjust the number of seats reserved for women, depending on passenger numbers at that time of day. Later impact studies showed an increase, along the new bus routes, in the number of women and girls that used public transport and attended school and college. They also showed a decrease in maternal and infant deaths as more pregnant women attended prenatal checks.
A public transport inclusive of women and girls can be a huge social and economic multiplier not only for them but for wider society.
Eight messages for an inclusive public transport
International Women’s Day 2019 on 8th March is an excellent time to reflect on how public transport can be made inclusive for women and thereby make a radical difference in the lives of the poorest women particularly. I have eight messages for policy makers:
1. Making public transport accessible to women and girls means taking an intersectional approach and analysing the diverse needs of all women and girls who use or might use the system. These include the poorest women, women from marginalised castes and social groups, older women, women and girls with limited mobility, women accompanied by children and baby buggies and women traders transporting goods to market. Any system that is accessible for these women is likely to be accessible for everyone.
2. Public transport will only have maximum impact for the poorest and most marginalised women if it is affordable, opening up opportunities for education, paid work and health care to transform their life chances. Women are, on average, poorer than men and, to be inclusive, studies of affordability must look beyond household income which may mask income inequalities within the household between women and men.
3. The third pillar of inclusive public transport is that it must be safe and minimise sexual harassment and violence against women and girls, which is common worldwide. This means looking at all aspects of the system, from waiting areas, stops, approaches, lighting and alarm systems to the design of vehicles and training of staff. It also means addressing unacceptable behaviour and prosecuting offenders to set a zero tolerance culture for gender-based violence.
4. To be inclusive, routes and transport systems must be designed for differences in travel patterns by men and women based on their different gender roles in that context. Typically, men using public transport will have simpler travel patterns and women will tend to pack more objectives and stops into one trip (trip chaining). Transport and mobility studies need to include women’s needs and preferences as well as men’s.
5. In addition to designing systems for journeys women need to make, inclusive public transport should also facilitate their personal hopes and ambitions. It should support women’s recreation and social connections and help reduce loneliness, particularly for older women and men.
6. Public transport systems tend to be larger employers of men than women. An inclusive system would employ equal numbers of women and men at all levels, from drivers to CEOs. Equal numbers of female staff working on public transport makes it more welcoming for women and girls and, in turn, more women and families using the system encourages other women to use it. A system that women and families feel safe to use is a safer system for everyone.
7. To achieve all of the above, however, it is critical that public transport systems be designed by and with women (again taking an intersectional approach and including all classes, ages, disability, etc.) in equal numbers to men. Currently, women’s voices are often drowned out by male voices in decision making and systems do not reflect the reality of women’s lives or needs.
8. At a macro level, it is crucial that women have an equal voice in political decision making on questions such as spending priorities on roads for private cars versus public transport, the environmental impact of transport and road safety. Globally, however, only around one quarter of parliamentarians are female at national level, which contributes to political decisions that do not reflect the priorities of women.
As we celebrate International Women’s Day this year, I would like to spread the message that a public transport inclusive of women and girls can be a huge social and economic multiplier not only for them but for wider society. This is because more educated, empowered women entering the labour market drives literacy, better health and economic growth.
A public transport system that includes women is an excellent social investment.
Ann Keeling has 35 years’ experience in international development leading strategy, communications, people, advocacy, finances and programmes in governments, UN, the Commonwealth and NGOs. She has been the CEO of two global NGOs, head of Gender Equality in the UK Government as well as Founding Chair of the NCD Alliance, a movement of 2000 NGOs on Non Communicable Diseases (NCDs). Currently, Ann is the Chair of Age International and Board Member of Women in Global Health.