Nazia pushed through the swarm of men that entered the women’s compartment of a bus and sat on a seat behind the bus driver – the only one available. The sole barrier between her and the bus driver was the grill on the driver’s seat.
She clutched onto the scarf around her neck and squeezed her body towards the far-end of the seat as the gaze of men around her remained fixated on the women’s compartment. A glare devoid of any consequences.
Nazia’s experience is not a lonesome one, around 77% of women across Karachi, who use public transport, have been harassed at least once, according to a study ‘Mobility from Lens of Gender’.
In the developed world, mass transit plans are not made on a ‘macro level’ anymore. They‘re designed on details such as age, gender, disabilities and socio-economic standing of its users.
Gender mobility is a factor that is increasingly being considered in mass transit because the transportation needs and realities of women are different than that of men. While men tend to own vehicles, women usually depend on public transportation facilities for mobility.
The worsening condition of public transport in Pakistan has, however, made women’s mobility increasingly difficult over rising safety concerns.
“My parents are in a constant state of anxiety when I leave for university,” Fatima Azha, a third-year student at the Institute of Business Management said. She travels by bus in a burqa every day. The only part of her body visible in the attire are her eyes. “The fear of a man touching never go away. It has already happened twice,” she said.
At least 90% of women who travel via public transport complain that male conductors tend to make unnecessary contact, according to a study by Women Development Department. Most of these incidents go unreported.
The reason, why most women don’t complain, is that they have to travel by the same route every day and if they speak up about it and the harasser is not punished, he will become more confident.
Cultural and social norms are another reason behind the decreasing women mobility. For instance, in many families, women are not allowed to leave their homes without the company of a man. In most cases women prefer to travel in groups when outside.
In Karachi’s average mini bus, only seven of the 25 seats are allocated for women. These seats fill up quickly as most blue-collar women employees get off at the same time as men.
“If I reach the bus stop any later than 5 pm, I have to travel by a Suzuki truck because rickshaws and taxis are expensive,” Momin Bai, a housemaid at Khalid-Bin-Waleed Road said.
Approximately 10% of a woman’s monthly salary is spent on travelling, according to a study by Urban Resource Center.
Men at rush hours tend to slide in the women section of the bus and use the exit gate of the dedicated women section. Bus conductors prefer a male passenger over a female because they can fit four men in the space of two women. The steps of the minibus are steep and unstable, which makes it harder for women, especially those who are accompanied by children, to get on or off the bus.
A study conducted by the Urban Resource Centre in Karachi reported that women spend at least 10% of their monthly income on transportation.
In recent years, chingchi rickshaws are being used by a growing number of women passengers because of their accessibility and cheaper rates. However, their design flaws make them prone to accidents.
In 2016, when ride hailing apps first introduced services in Pakistan, a lot of women from the middle and upper-middle-class transitioned to using these app instead of public transport due to better safety. However, over the years the female app users have reported incidents of stalking, harassment and unwarranted gestures.
Since Karachi is finally getting the much-awaited Green Line, there were hopes that the needs of women will be addressed.
Upon being questioned whether the new BRT service will address the ‘safety’ needs of women, Sindh Assembly member Saeed Afridi assured that the Green Line stops are fully equipped with CCTV cameras and safety will be given paramount importance.
The necessity to make public spaces and streets safer for women has been pointed out several times by urban planners. However, each time, it has gone unheard and unaddressed.
A bus stop will immediately be safer if it has more lighting around it and a small shop that would keep the space busy.
The pavement height of the bus stop needs to be lowered so that women can easily climb up and down. Ramps around the bus stop will help accommodate women who have elderly or toddlers with them. There could be an app where women can register complaints. An emergency helpline can be launched via which police could be called for help.
The number of seats in the dedicated bus section of women also needs to be increased considerably.
In Lahore and Khyber Pakhtunkhawa, the Pink bus service was introduced in 2018-2019. It was, however, closed down due to heavy financial losses and less footfall.
The solutions to these problems have been sought in different ways around the world.
In Ghana, when the BRT system was launched, the company that supported the project set a goal that 10% of the public bus drivers will be women. The campaign ‘Women moving in the city’ was a huge success, 120 female drivers were trained and hired. This action helped even out the gender balance and increased female mobility.
According to a study 90pc women face harassment in public transport.
In London, Mayor, Sadiq Khan launched a one-hour hopper fare initiative in 2016 in which tram and train passengers could take two trips at the price of one within an hour. The initiative was a success and was then extended by the mayor allowing the passengers to make as many trips as they want at price of one ticket, in an hour.
In Dehli, India, SafetyPin, a map-based mobile app has been a huge success. The app collects data through its users and trained auditors about the safety of an area. It takes in parameters like level of lighting, visibility, level of crowding, security, openness and others. The results are then used to repair and replace things that are not functional.
More than fifty percent of the total population of Pakistan constitutes of women. They are part of the economy, primary caretakers of the house, elderly and children. Their needs should not be secondary, it’s high time the policymakers think of policies that make the public transport and mass transit systems women-friendly.