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International Women’s Day: research from Ethiopia challenges repressive gender stereotypes and champions safe public transport for women

On International Women’s Day (8th March) we call for repressive societal norms against women to be challenged following new findings of systematic mistreatment of women in the public transport sector in northern Ethiopia.

Our researchers from ALERT Engineering PLC in Ethiopia collected data over four months to examine women’s safety concerns in the urban public transport sector in Mekelle City, northern Ethiopia in a period before the recent conflict began. Public transportation plays a crucial role in women’s daily activities, without it their economic and social interactions are at risk. However, the results of the study show that women face a series of physical, psychological and verbal harassments that negatively impact their freedom of movement.

These forms of gender-based violence have neither been reported nor studied for a long time.

Our findings show that women are often cat-called, leered at, and teased. In extreme cases, women were insulted, groped, or even physically confronted while using public transport facilities. This is a clear violation of human rights.

From the survey study, we observed that over half of the 705 women respondents (51%) have faced sexual harassment in one form or another while using urban public transport in the city. To note that one in two women transport users in Mekelle faced harassment is disturbing. One of the participants in the study characterised the situation as follows:

“When I thought of using [a] taxi, I could only wish that the fellow passenger … beside me to be a woman or an old man. It seems it is a must to be verbally harassed if you are female passenger. If I don’t give a positive response to them, they insult and discourage me. Such sexual harassments were common and happened in my everyday life.”

Most of the women respondents who were harassed took no action. According to the interviews we have conducted with key informants and victims, this could be either because they were afraid of the consequences or because such incidents were considered ‘normal.’ However, a good proportion of the respondents (32%) said they would confront the offenders one way or another. Confrontations rarely involve physical encounters and are most likely to be in the form of verbal protests.

Women who resist any form of harassment or unjust practices are often suppressed and ridiculed. Attempts to report harassment cases often end in vain because of the low attention assigned to it by administrative and legal bodies. In the words of one of the participants in the study:

“The problems women face every day are considered normal, so much so that you sometimes feel afraid to move against the wind. This makes it difficult to deal with the problem. Some of the safety concerns are milder than others; there are also some which go to the extreme. But it all goes down to people’s levels of consciousness.”

Another participant in the study said:

“Women’s harassment in public transport in Mekelle is everyday experience. Nobody gives it attention to that due lack of awareness. Even the women themselves don’t fight for their right. There is a wrong attitude women’s right in the society. There is almost no respect given to women in our community.”

These are just two examples from the study that show that existing perceptions and stereotypes must be repealed and replaced with those that promote gender inclusiveness. While policy shifts may also be needed, focus must first be made on upgrading local communities’ awareness of gender equality and its ramifications for national development.

The findings of the study point towards the need to have successive training and sensitization campaigns and gender advocacy work that target different sections of society. These should include taxi drivers and conductors, public transport users and key policy makers. However, individual families must be entrusted with the responsibility of educating their children about equality. Women’s rights should also be effectively incorporated into the school curricula and be mainstreamed in the national development agenda.

Other strategies suggested by the participants to improve the current appalling conditions in the public transport sector include:

International Women’s Day this year is calling to #breakthebias – to build a world free of bias, stereotypes, and discrimination against women. Our research, we hope, will help build the evidence base and opportunities for women to be treated with respect and to feel safe to travel and live their lives as they choose.

Azeb Tesfaye, Alemgena A. Araya, Kelemework Tafere, ALERT Engineering PLC, Addis Ababa, Ethiopia