Time to move on

Mobility constraints limit women’s participation in labour force and stifle career growth

Photo by Rahat Dar

Women population in Pakistan is around 49 per cent of the total population. It has a significant role to play in the economy. Over the years, women have ventured and excelled in many fields. However, certain impediments continue to hinder their full participation.

Workforce surveys and statistics show that historically the labour participation rate of women has remained below 20 per cent or slightly above it. The 2020 figures put it just above 22 per cent although the number might have come down due to Covid-19 related economic slowdown.

However, this figure represents only the women employed in the formal sector. In the informal sector, meanwhile, women are employed in large numbers. They dominate agriculture, home based work and domestic work but their contributions are not adequately acknowledged or properly valued in terms of the remunerations they get.

One of the reasons women participation in formal sector remains low is their limited mobility. This keeps them away from formal employment so that they have to accept low-wage informal sector jobs at home or close to where they live. This also makes it harder for them to switch jobs. The absence of a safe and reliable public transport network and lack of privately owned vehicles are the main causes for this. While there are social and personal security issues as well, access to suitable transport is by far the most frequent problems.

Saira (name changed on request) is in her late 20s. She works as a receptionist at an office in a busy commercial plaza in Lahore. For years, she has depended on her father and brother who drop her at her office and then pick her up after her work is done.

The arrangement is that one of them drops her and the other picks her as both are working men and have to follow their own office routines. On rare occasions when both of them are not available, she has to take emergency leave from office to avoid the hassle of travelling by herself. She says she rarely uses a rickshaw and when she does her family members note down the registration number of the rickshaw and the mobile phone number of its driver before she leaves.

She says sometimes she is asked to stay at the office for longer than her routine hours but she cannot do that and this has created friction between her and her supervisor. “When my father or brother arrive to pick me up, I have to leave. Otherwise, I will be stuck because the public transport is neither safe nor efficient and rickshaw and taxi are very expensive.” One can well imagine how tough the situation is for women workers who do not have male family members to provide them similar logistical support.

Dur-e-Shehwar, the All Pakistan Women Association (APWA) chief executive officer, agrees that mobility issues leave many women with extremely limited choices. Most of them settle in the end for options available closer to their homes. She says the employers tend to exploit the consideration because they realize their weak bargaining position. A large number of women qualified for better paying jobs accept teaching jobs in private schools or as paramedics close to their houses.

Dur-e-Shehwar says it is very unfortunate that women cannot feel secure at public places and rely on public transport. That is why, she says, there is a demand from law enforcement agencies to monitor these with security cameras. She says not many working women can afford their own cars and riding a motorbike or scootie to office is not easy. She says if large numbers of women are provided personal transport vehicles on subsidized prices and easy installments, the culture might change and social acceptability of these modes of transport might increase.

In the informal sector, meanwhile, women are employed in large numbers. They dominate agriculture, home based work and domestic work but their contributions are not adequately acknowledged or properly valued in terms of the remunerations they get.

She points out that advertisements for many well-paid jobs clearly mention that the applicants must own their personal transport. This, she says, bars most women applicants from applying for these jobs. They are then forced settle for back office jobs where chances of professional growth are minimal.

Many studies have concluded that providing safe transport is not only essential for giving women better access to decent work, it also tends to reduce harassment against women. In most Pakistani cities, the location of public transport stops is such that commuters have to walk significant distances after disembarking. This too is a challenge where streets are not well-lit or are crowded by strangers.

Fauzia Viqar, the Punjab Commission on the Status of Women (PCSW) chairperson, tells TNS it is a complex situation. She says women do not necessarily state that transport issues keep them away but then they do tend to prefer to work in places that provide them transport. She says a study commissioned by the PCSW during her tenure found that transport constraints substantially restrict women’s lives and have direct bearing on their participation in labour force, educational attainment and ability to engage in independent activities.

She says many initiatives to improve women’s mobility have been narrow in scope and focused on women’s-only services. There is a need to introduce carefully designed transport interventions and incorporate gender in transport planning. She says pedestrian safety between the public transport and their destination should be improved by providing sidewalks, street lighting, public toilets and police attention close to stops.

Mumtaz Mughal from Aurat Foundation (AF) says mobility issues cost women workers dearly. For example, she says, home based workers are paid dismally low wages by the middlemen who keep the lion’s share of the profits earned from the sale of their products.

She says in many cases the employers are not identified so that the women do not know who they are working for. Lacking market linkages and mobility they have to settle for the low wage work. Similarly, she says, women workers in agriculture sector have to sell their produce to middlemen. They can increase their earnings manifold if they are able to produce value-added products from the crops they grow and sell those in the market. A simple example, she says, is of women growers of tomato who can make tomato paste and ketchup and sell them in nearby markets.

Mughal says her organization will soon launch a national study on safety audit of public places including public transport with a gender lens. The study, she says, is supported by the UN Women and identifies issues and suggested recommendations to facilitate women in public sphere. She says they are not advocating separate public transport for women and in fact want them to come into the mainstream. Instead for promoting compartments and all-women vehicles there is a need for making them equally comfortable for both men and women, she adds.

The author is a staffer and can be contacted at [email protected]

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