Public transport fulfils an essential role in supporting access to work, education and other opportunities, especially among lower income and vulnerable communities.
Globally, studies show that women and girls are far more likely than men to feel unsafe on urban public transport, with a growing number experiencing harassment of a sexual nature. According to the International Labour Organisation, a combination of lack of access to transport and concerns about safety is the greatest obstacle to women’s participation in the labour market in developing countries.
At the heart of creating safe public transport for women and girls, particularly in low-income countries, is for policymakers and transport providers to recognise and understand the problems women face. The EMPOWER project is working on tools and methods that will assist policymakers, national and local stakeholders and transport providers in African cities to develop an evidence-based approach to addressing sexual harassment and personal security within public transport.
The project specifically addresses how stakeholders can collect data and evidence on sexually related harassment and assault on women when they travel in urban environments, in order to better understand the causes and document the main responses.
The EMPOWER project began in late 2020 with a key aim to understand how to best collect data and information on sexual harassment in Lagos, Nigeria and Blantyre, Malawi, two Sub-Saharan African cities with different city and transport profiles. Lagos, a large mega city with over 10 million inhabitants, has a wide variety of public transport modes available including formal (Bus Rapid Tranist, or BRT) and informal modes (minibus taxis, motorcycle and cycle taxis), and Blantyre, Malawi, a city with a little over a million inhabitants, where the mobility choice is predominantly minibus or motorcycle taxi.
We collected data from urban public transport users and key stakeholders to see the extent that women’s mobility was affected by fears about their personal security. Our methodology included interception surveys, focus group discussions and compared paper and tablet collection methods. Over 1000 questionnaire responses were collected in each city over eight months (from October 2020 to July 2021). We interviewed both women and men over the age of 18.
From this work it became apparent that neither the women nor men we spoke to had a clear understanding or common consensus of what constitutes sexual harassment. Men, for example, often felt that verbal harassment targeted at women was acceptable, while women did not. Many male respondents normalized sexual harassment and did not accept or understand the severity or emotional impacts of it. It is not therefore perceived as a significant travel concern by men, who are predominantly responsible for transport planning, investment and organisational decisions at local and national levels.
Perceptions also varied according to location: behaviours considered to be acceptable in Lagos were not always considered so in Blantyre. This is one of the first studies that has identified clearly the deep differences in understanding of what constitutes sexual harassment. This is an extremely important finding for this branch of research.
To explore this observation further, and to try to find a reliable way to gather evidence about sexual harassment, the team began try different prompts in interviews to identify the behaviour that women were experiencing on public transport.
In the pilot survey, the team began with a series of words used to define sexual harassment, but once the discrepancy in understanding of the term became apparent, they decided to switch to using images to be sure that people understood the meaning, rather than just the words. Using experience from research on violence involving children, we were able to develop and test a series of pictograms showing the most common forms of sexual harassment. We developed icons that were easily understood by both men and women to ensure we were discussing the same issue in the surveys and focus groups. The use of pictograms was another key finding of this work which has not been referred to in other studies or international literature. It produced very clear results in both countries.
These insights allowed us to develop a definition of sexual harassment. The EMPOWER definition is: the unwanted advances of a sexual nature given by someone to another. This can be verbal, visual, physical and /or psychological, such as intimidation or stalking.
Overall, our work has shown that to give policymakers and transport providers an accurate insight into sexual harassment on their transport systems they must first have a common understanding of what sexual harassment is. This common definition must then be something that those whose opinions are sought can also understand in order to accurately explain their experiences. This important step is just one of a number we are making to ensure policymakers and transport providers recognise and understand the problems women face and use this evidence to bring about meaningful change.
*EMPOWER is a UKAid funded Action Research through the UK Foreign Commonwealth & Development Office (FCDO) under the High-Volume Transport Applied Research Programme managed by IMC Worldwide Ltd. The primary objective of the EMPOWER project is to establish a web-based Decision-Making Tool that will provide step-by-step guidance on the process of identifying the best measures to tackle sexual harassment on public transport.