Tuesday July 05, 2022

The question of female mobility

March 14, 2020

Pakistan is among those Asian countries where rapid population growth and urbanization have resulted in severe mobility issues for people who also face poverty, inequality and poor delivery of amenities.

With respect to the issue of inaccessibility to public transport, lack of transportation infrastructure, incessant increase in the ownership of private transport, and disdain towards following traffic regulations cause further threats to the sustainable transportation system. These issues are gradually seeping into public and discursive debates in Pakistan’s politics and academia.

More pertinently, it is being recognized in these debates that of those who are excluded, the poor, the unemployed, the elderly and women are the most adversely effected. With the identification of these disadvantaged groups, it becomes even more compulsive to frame a sustainable and inclusive transportation system that provides transportation facilities in affordable, environment-friendly, and culturally-sensitive fashion. The reality, on the other hand, depicts that the public transportation system in Pakistan does not meet the socio-cultural and financial needs of the people.

Pakistan is one of the most urbanized countries of the world, with two-thirds of its urban population residing in the ten large cities. On the organizational and functional fronts, the country has been undergoing random changes in urban localities which on one level is creating bottlenecks for the poor to survive and on the other, overcrowding, urban poverty and inaccessibility of basic services are being experientially faced by the poor. Furthermore, with lower average income, only the rich can afford to possess private vehicles (specifically cars) for their mobility and for the majority, job-related trips depend on the public transport system.

In the early 1980s, the public transportation system was deregulated in Pakistan, which paved the way for the influx of private operators who started providing urban transport services with government controlling the fare and route licensing. These private operators run low-cost and small transport vehicles to maximize their profits. Furthermore, the lack of efficiency and quality of transportation system is compounded by the lack of institutional capacity and supervision of these private transport operators.

In Pakistan the concept of mobility for women is gendered which means that mobility due to economic and social reasons is a problem for both men and women given the preceding text where public transportation system has been problematized irrespective of gender differences. Still, women are affected differently than men and the difference is essentially social as women are domesticated and associated with family honour.

In this regard, female mobility in open spaces and public transports becomes a matter of prime concern as the process entails to impact on their privacies and safeties. Resultantly, women are less mobile, travel sporadically, and make sure that they have permission from the head of the household and are veiled before leaving, or with a male escort from their family. This calls for a transportation system which guarantees female security and comfort. Given that the majority of the population lacks the ownership of private transport, including women, making them increasingly dependent on the public transportation system for mobility.

The existing transport system in Pakistan does not cater to female-specific needs, for instance female-reserved seating, safety from male travellers, hassle-free travel and door-to-door accessibility. The scholarly material produced concurrently also highlights that inaccessibility to safe and secure transport mobility to women hinder their access to basic services such as education and healthcare.

A report titled ‘Approaches for Gender Responsive Urban Mobility’ specifies security as a complex phenomenon as it depends upon human interactions whose behaviours are unpredictable and contingent on emotional over rational reactions. Safety on the other hand can be assured through technical solutions but improving the safety system does not always ensure improvement in the security system as security is more subjective since different people define ‘what is safe?’ and ‘what is secure’ differently.

The variants in the perception of security between men and women and even among women also exist along the axis of economic backgrounds, age, race, education and cultural contexts. In the context of human security, female mobility is also constricted because of the violence and harassment women face when they are in public spaces in general or public transports, in particular. The number of harassment cases and the forms it takes show that name-calling, teasing, staring, touching, male physical exposure, groping etc are common in the public transport women use to travel for educational and job-related reasons.

The number and types of harassment have been consistently reported in all the developing countries in and around all public spaces and in public transport such as bus stations, train stations, or public transport stops. In South Asia, the debate about the violation of these spaces for women came to the forefront with the gang-rape and murder of a young student when she took a bus to return home in Delhi. In India, a report compiled by Jagori (2010) highlights that more than 90 percent of women faced sexual harassment in the previous year while using public space and 51 percent experienced harassment in public transport and 42 percent while waiting for buses at bus stops/stations.

In Pakistan, a report published by the Asian Development Bank (in 2014) also corroborates that 70 percent of women faced harassment in public transport, 75 percent claiming that the perpetrator was another unknown passenger, 20 percent saying that it was the conductor and five percent that it was driver. Thirty-four percent women reported of being touched inappropriately or groped and seven percent shared experiences of stalking and unwelcome following.

The results of the ADB report show a significant impact on female mobility as due to being harassed in public spaces and on public transport, 31 percent of female students, 23 percent of working women and 20 percent of homemakers decreased the use of public transport and could not seek expensive transportation channels as alternatives. The more alarming finding of the report was that 40 percent of women restricted travelling after sunset which they viewed limited their opportunities for education and personal development.

In the wake of the argument built in the preceding text, the response from urban planners are important to consider. In addition to female mobility being restricted due to religio-cultural factors in Pakistan, poor urban planning also circumvent women from becoming part of the labour force by circumscribing their comfort to use public transport.

Some steps to ease female mobility and assure female security in and around public spaces and transport can be taken. Street lighting should be consistently maintained without power shortages. Installation of khokhas near each public transport station will also ensure the mobility of people for consumptive reasons which will lead to more watchful zones conducive for female security and mobility. Transport schedules should be consistently updated and displayed for public consumption so that women arrange their trips accordingly.

Hiring female bus-conductors and ticket-checker/collector can also be a workable framework for easing female mobility and security in and around public spaces and transportation systems. Compartmentalization of spaces in public transport for people of different genders can be helpful; one such example is the Pink Bus initiative. The indiscriminate distribution of women’s safety smartphone application to all the provincial governments and the implementation of the same in all the major cities of Pakistan will also be effective.

On the policy design and implementation levels, the role of urban planners should also include campaigning for and generating gender-sensitive debates. Women’s representation on policy framing, implementing, institutionalizing and evaluating is also critically important.

The writer is a lecture at the department of development studies, PIDE.