Women form around 49 percent of the population of Pakistan, according to the population census of 2017, but unfortunately a small segment of these contribute to the economic activity of Pakistan. This definitely results in slower economic growth and limits the volume of GDP.
No doubt women form a major part of the agricultural workforce but they are hardly accounted for and the work they do is mostly seasonal and unskilled. When it comes to skilled and high-paying jobs, it's mostly the men who grab these.
The reasons are different and a major one is that women do not feel safe at public places and while commuting. This sense of insecurity at public spaces forces them to stay at home and as a result they cannot contribute towards economic development of the country. The worse is the case with public transport that is hardly women-friendly. Harassment at public places is also quite common and not taken as a serious crime even if there are laws in place to punish the culprits.
This issue is too big to be ignored, especially when the Constitution of Pakistan envisages a country that is free of discrimination, where women and men are considered equal before the law and can work to their full potential to contribute to wider society.
At the same time, a look at the draft of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) shows that discrimination against women and their exploitation are considered biggest hindrances in sustainable development. The SDG-5 talks about the goal to achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls and target 5.1 under this goal suggests ending all forms of discrimination against all women and girls everywhere. Target 5.5 talks about ensuring women's full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision making in political, economic and public life. Similarly, the SDG-11 is about making cities and human settlements inclusive, safe, resilient and sustainable. This all translates into the need for making work and day-to-day life and environment conducive for women.
A study titled “Women's Safety Audit in Public Transport in Lahore” was conducted and has recently been released. It is based on surveys and interviews. Though the area selected was Lahore, a city with latest and modern mass transit systems, the findings are relevant to other cities as well.
It is a study designed and commissioned by Women's Development Department (WDD), Punjab, and UN Women Pakistan, carried out by the Aurat Foundation (AF) and funded by the Australian government. The Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW), the Chief Minister's Strategic Reforms Unit (SRU) and the Punjab Safe Cities Authority (PSCA) provided their support during the study.
Dr Ra’ana Malik, the lead researcher and head of the Department of Gender Studies, Punjab University, said the study examined the perceptions of women commuters aged between 10 years and 60 years. For this, she says, a street perception survey was conducted to assess the experiences of a large number of women from different classes, age groups, occupations, etc. The questionnaires were designed to gain insights into women's anxieties, their understanding of the factors that cause insecurity, and their responses to sexual harassment faced at bus stops and within buses during different times of the day.
Ra’ana added that at every stage of the study, careful consideration was given to ethical guidelines. For example, informed consent was taken from respondents prior to the start of data collection. All researchers were asked to end the interviews on a positive note. The advice of the advisory committee and the steering committee was sought regularly and benefitted from during the course of the study.
The perception survey was conducted with a sample of 1,003 individuals travelling on LTC and Metro buses. These included 903 women commuters, 100 bus drivers and conductors and other individuals including transgender people. The problems faced by transgender people, elders and people with disabilities while using public transport were also taken into account.
• About 82 percent of women commuters report facing harassment at bus stops, with higher rates at Lahore Transport Company (LTC) bus stops compared to Metro bus stations, and amongst younger women (20–29 years of age) compared to older women. (LTC systems are a bit archaic while Metro has advanced ones).
• The most common types of sexual harassment at bus stops include staring, stalking, obscene gestures, whistling, passing sexual comments, and touching.
• The perpetrators are primarily fellow passengers. About 62 percent of women state that they have been harassed by fellow passengers.
• About 98 percent of respondents are unaware of existing emergency helplines or mobile phone apps to report sexual harassment.
• There is negligible awareness about pro-women laws. About 94.8 percent of women are unaware of such laws and 99 percent have no knowledge of Pakistan Penal Code Section 509 which defines “public place” as including, but not limited to, markets, public transport, streets or parks, and in private places including, but not limited, to workplaces, private gatherings, homes and others. The punishment under this section is up to three years imprisonment and/ or a fine of up to Rs500,000.
• All bus stops, even the newly-built Metro bus stations, fail to make provisions for women commuters with special needs. These include pregnant women, those with young children, women with disabilities and elderly women. Alarmingly, the entire public transport system does not address nor respond to the special needs of persons with disabilities.
• LTC bus stops are poorly managed, with inadequate lighting, missing benches, no signage, no dustbins, badly maintained overhead shades etc. LTC bus stops also lack surveillance cameras, rendering women commuters more vulnerable to sexual harassment.
Jamshed M Kazi, country representative, UN Women, Pakistan believes that in countries like Pakistan, the prevailing social mind-set tends to frown upon and, at times, prohibit women's movement outside household boundaries. Those few who have the liberty to visit public places face sexual harassment and myriad forms of violence. This pioneering study, he says, brings the neglected issue of safe public spaces to the forefront by hearing first-hand from women and girls who have experienced sexual harassment and violence in public spaces, starting with the city of Lahore. The findings can be very useful while formulating inclusive public transport policies, he concludes.
Mumtaz Mughal, resident director, Aurat Foundation, Lahore tells Money Matters that the specific objectives of the project include the generation of data on women's safety and security whilst using public transport in the city. This, she says, has been done to generate advocacy recommendations and evidence-based actions to improve public transport infrastructure. The aim, she adds, is to bridge the gap between policy formulation and service delivery. To achieve this end the study also provides policy recommendations to the Women's Development Department and the Punjab Transport Department.
Suggestions for policymakers
• Collect sex-disaggregated data to effectively analyse and address the issues faced by women using public transport.
• Make infrastructure and the integrated transport network women-friendly through gender sensitive planning, more allocated seats for women, and measures to reduce overcrowding and long delays between buses.
• Consider the gendered needs of marginalised groups when designing infrastructure, including the elderly, people with disabilities, pregnant women, women with children and transgender individuals.
• Provide mandatory gender sensitisation training to bus drivers, conductors and helpline operators.
• Ensure women-friendly facilities, including adequate seating and lighting, at bus stops, with proper maintenance.
• Display and implement the code of conduct related to women on Metro bus services.
Salman Sufi, director general (DG), Punjab Chief Minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit (SRU), shares the unit also forms an integral part of the steering committee for this pilot Women Safety Audit. The SRU, he says, has been involved in providing support to the team conducting and evaluating research to emphasise the Punjab government’s support of evidence-based approaches for addressing women’s safety in public spaces.
He says the results of the findings will be used by the government to further introduce streamlined policy on reinstating safer spaces for women. In line with inclusive policy for women and girls, SRU’s Women-on-Wheels (WoW) campaign aims to create safer and accessible spaces for women through the provision of free motorcycle trainings in Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Sargodha and Rawalpindi.
The writer is a staff member