High Volume Transport

Vital transport research to ensure accessible, affordable and climate friendly transport for all.

International Women’s Day 2023: Safe travel is a woman’s right

On International Women’s Day 2023, HVT calls for women everywhere to feel safe to travel, and to live, without fear of harassment, violence or discrimination.

A newly published paper from the HVT Empower project shines a light on the sexual harassment women face when travelling in two African cities and provides recommendations for addressing this misunderstood and often neglected issue.

Sexual harassment of women in public space, including public transport, is widespread, with one survey of women across the world revealing that approximately 84% had experienced street harassment for the first time before they were 17 years old*. Concerns over safety can result in changes of behaviour and trip avoidance. In low-income countries, lack of access to public transport and fears over its safety are estimated to reduce the number of women able to work by 16.5% (SuM4All, 2019).

Fears about female personal safety and security are well documented in the global north but there is little evidence currently available from sub-Saharan African cities.

A new paper published by researchers from the HVT-funded Empower project in the journal Science Direct, focuses on two African cities: Blantyre, Malawi and Lagos, Nigeria, and looks not only at gender-based sexual harassment on public transport, but at the differences in travel behaviour between men and women.

The paper explains that while men do report some harassment when travelling, 38% of all female respondents reported it as ‘common’, and 15% stated that it is ‘very common’. Women are making more frequent, shorter trips, and are facing a significantly higher risk of encountering sexual harassment than men.

The data shared in the paper established that sexual harassment is happening in all parts of the transport system, and to both genders, but the burden on female travellers is higher than for males.

Inappropriate touching, verbal harassment and intimidation with pushing and shoving are the three most frequent types of sexual harassment personally experienced or witnessed. In Blantyre, between 67% and 83% of all female respondents (depending on their occupation, self-employed women and students being at most risk) indicated that they experience sexual harassment regularly. Women in Lagos varied by between 21% and 25%, while the male categories varied by between 5% and 8%.

The paper found that every part of women’s journeys is affected: during travel to the transit station, whilst waiting for the vehicle and then once inside the vehicle. The need for transfers increased the risk of crime and sexual harassment, in both Blantyre and Lagos, by between 6% and 7%.

The results and comparison of Lagos and Blantyre allowed the project team to conclude that women (and men) with higher incomes and education are less concerned by travel-related sexual harassment. The data suggests that premium formal transport modes (such as BRT), and their (more affluent) users seem to be at lower risk than poorer, often captive users of informal transport.

In both cities very few women reported the harassment, most saying they didn’t know where to report incidents, and anyway didn’t trust the police to take action.

The research found there was a significant lack of understanding of the problem of sexual harassment within the community – including widespread misunderstandings about what sexual harassment is.

The paper concluded that addressing travel-related sexual harassment effectively will require action on many levels with the authors saying:

“As most African cities are predominantly served by the private transport sector, characterised by fragmented markets, and have numerous role players to consider, it is important that transport authorities and decision makers take the lead on making public transport safer.

“The SUM4ALL report (2019) states that only 32 countries have legislation on sexual harassment in public spaces. In a recent (currently unpublished) study by the Centre for Transport Studies at the University of Cape Town, only five out of 29 countries in Africa have policies around gender equity. There is, thus, a clear lack of adequate policy and legal frameworks that address the issue at present.”

The paper also points to a general societal ignorance on the topic of sexual harassment, and cultural norms that desensitise people to the problem. The authors therefore recommend educational campaigns and events to drive behaviour and culture changes, and foster understanding and awareness.

The research highlights that there is a large data void on this topic in sub-Saharan Africa which in turn limits the ability of governmental stakeholders to make decisions with this issue in mind. At HVT we are working towards addressing that void. We #EmbraceEquity in transport, envisioning a future where all mobility needs are accounted for and where transport is an equitable, inclusive, sustainable sector.

* (Hollaback! and The ILR School, 2015).