Fatima Adamu , Executive Director, Nana Girls and Women Empowerment Initiative, Sokoto, Nigeria.
EMPOWER project partner
After working for two decades in research and activism on women’s rights in Nigeria, with extensive experience in the issue of violence against women and girls, I have found that the issue of sexual harassment in public transport in Sub-Saharan Africa is getting little to no attention.
There is much needed literature and research on issues such as early and forced marriage, intimate partner violence and sexual violence in Nigerian schools, homes, markets and religious places, but there is limited attention accorded to the transport space.
For example, a World Bank study1 in collaboration with Federal Ministry of Women Affairs reports high prevalence of harassment against women in public spaces. Such public places were identified to be marketplace, church, community meetings, on the street, and at work, especially in a male-dominated occupation.
The male dominated occupations identified in the research report included quarry work, shoe and bag making, farming (subsistence and large-scale cultivation), and cloth dyeing. However, the public transport space was missing.
I was therefore extremely motivated to be invited to join the EMPOWER project where a key element of my work is to establish an evidence base for the extent and nature of sexual harassment and violence against women on public transport in Sub-Saharan Africa.
Sexual Harassment Findings from the Abuja Stakeholder Workshop
As part of this aim, on 3 June 2021, I moderated a workshop in Abuja with key stakeholders2 from Lagos, Kano and Abuja to engage them in a discussion about the prevalence of sexual harassment in public transport as well as potential measures to reduce it. We also discussed their roles and responsibilities in their field and the organisational frameworks in which they work.
In preparation for this workshop, EMPOWER partners undertook passenger surveys and focus group discussions in Lagos and Blantyre. These provided us with key findings to discuss with the stakeholders including: 18% of female passengers reported harassment as their greatest worry in Lagos; 70% have witnessed sexual harassment on public transport; and 45% have experienced it. Some of the reported incidents included verbal, groping, inappropriate touch, intimidation, and pushing.
One of the most important realisations that came out during the workshop in Abuja was that stakeholders in the transport sector – with the exception of some cases in Lagos – are unaware of systems in place to address sexual violence by government and organizations. This includes unawareness of projects under the Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and the Violence Against Persons Prohibition Act of 2015 (VAPP), a law that was passed in 2015 to tackle the problem of sexual violence.
The findings show a clear disconnect between government and NGOs’ efforts towards tackling sexual violence in the transport sector. The lack of communication and coordination between these entities are considerably affecting any initiatives towards tackling the issue of sexual harassment.
The discussions with the stakeholders in the workshop also provided an insight into the possible reasons as to why the problem of sexual violence in the transport sector is not getting the attention it deserves:
- Lack of coordination between government ministries. The two arms of government responsible (Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development and the Ministry of Transport) are not communicating. Women’s rights groups are also not engaging with the transport stakeholders.
- Public perception of sexual violence. Our research has found that there are widely different perceptions of what defines sexual harassment, and what is socially unacceptable behaviour. This leads to underreporting of incidents.
- A narrow understanding of transport operator’s responsibility. It is assumed that bus operators are accountable for the behaviour and action of the drivers and any bus policy, but not for what fellow passengers say or do in the course of the journey. One of the bus operators in the workshop reported that in the six years she has been managing the customer service department of the bus service, she has never received a single complaint related to sexual harassment. She believes this is not because women are not being harassed but because passengers do not believe the bus operators have responsibility over the behaviour and action of fellow passengers. The bus operators may feel the same.
- Unregulated nature of public transport. Nigeria’s public transport is predominantly not regulated by the government. Stakeholders estimated that at least 80% of public transport operation is not regulated by the government.
In conclusion, one of the key achievements of the workshop was the recognition by the stakeholders in the transport, security agencies, and women’s rights organisations for the need to collaborate and coordinate their activities to fight against sexual violence. The Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development was urged to reach out to the Ministry of Transport to mainstream and implement safeguarding measures in the Nigerian transport sector.
There is so much that the transport stakeholders can do in terms of reducing instances of sexual harassment. While this is just the beginning, the EMPOWER ‘SHE CAN’ Tool (under development) will assist transport policy makers and operators to identify the problem of sexual harassment in their cities, then tackle it through a series of tailored measures.
- World Bank (2019), Gender Based Violence: An Analysis of the Implication for the Nigeria for Women Project, page 15
- The stakeholders included representative of Federal and Lagos state Ministries of Transport responsible for transport policy in Nigeria, Federal Ministry of Women Affairs responsible for GBV policy and response, Ministry of Justice, Public and Private Transport Operators, Transport Unions, Nigeria Police Force, and NGOs providing support to GBV survivors.
*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.