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This post was written by Guest Contributor Saira Mahmood. Follow Saira at @sairamhmd and through her personal blog.
Pakistan has problems when it comes to safe, reliable and affordable transportation.
In 1947, the country gained independence from British imperial rule and inherited a sprawling network of tram and railway lines that allowed reasonable public mobility for the general population at the time. For the British this network had primarily served as a tool of colonial control. Still, the nascent state could have concentrated on the upkeep and expansion of the network to allow for a future with equitable mobility.
Instead, corruption and inefficiency allowed the system to fizzle out with the Karachi Circular Railway – the last intracity rail-based transport system in the country – ceasing operations around the 1990s for good. During (and after) this time a series of haphazardly designed government schemes attempted to improve the pitiful conditions of urban transport: massive road and underpass building projects, the introduction of Omnibuses, and later Volvos. Some of these still exist but a lot of them faded away due to corruption and inefficiency in the government. and almost all of them caused massive damage to the environment and ecosystem in the areas where they were deployed.
In the 1970s, the government admitted defeat and a series of deregulations allowed privately-owned transportation (with minimum government oversight) to replace governmental programs aiming for better mobility. This system has remained in place to this day with the current forms of public transportation extremely crowded, dangerously below regulatory standards and especially hostile to women commuters.
Nearly 90% of women using public transport in Pakistan have reported experiencing some form of gendered violence . Violence against women in Pakistan is often underreported (for fear of victim-blaming or retaliatory abuse) and goes unpunished, even when it makes it to court because of numerous gender and class based discriminatory practices within the justice system.
Yet, women in Pakistan need safe and reliable methods of public transportation more than men, in my opinion. In the Asian Development Bank’s 2013 ‘Gender Toolkit: Transport’, researchers point out that women are less likely than men to own private vehicles – whether cars, motorcycles or bicycles. They are also more likely to be poorer and have less access to decision making in the financial management of their households. In addition, women and men’s needs vary significantly in terms of mobility. The ADB report found that women were more likely to address several of their duties as caregivers (dropping children off at schools, buying groceries, etc.) in a single trip, which often also serves as a trip to and from their workplaces. This process – known as ‘trip-chaining’ – is less often seen in male travelers, who primarily travel to and from work only. Women are also more likely to travel with dependents – children, elderly parents, and folks living with disabilities – as part of their gendered duties of caregiving, or with a closely related male or elderly female due to fear of abuse on transport or cultural–religious considerations.
All of this significantly challenges that idea that transport is ‘gender-neutral’ and that urban planners and transportation authorities can ensure equitable mobility for all without taking gender into account. Consider this: bus routes with stops near economic hubs and company offices would likely benefit many commuters, but ignore the needs of those who transit to schools, hospitals, grocery markets and other such places on a daily basis. Women make up a majority of the latter category.
A more controversial decision might be the introduction of some women-only bus stations. Many women around the world support the idea of sex-segregated travel options (citing perceptions of safety) whilst others feel that it simply puts the onus of harassment on the victim and perpetuates harmful rape myths. Data from countries with women-only transport options is also inconclusive. Still, it is a debate the government should find worth having – especially considering that religious and cultural mores in many Muslim-majority countries (see here: Iran) like Pakistan might ensure increased public mobility for women if sex-segregation is ensured.
Another example of transportation that considers women’s needs may be the bus aggregator services in the Indian city of Hyderabad, where passengers may pre-book their seats on buses via smartphones. A study found that, “Women that used public transport before shifting to bus aggregator services stated that getting a seat, punctuality and travel time were crucial in their decision of which mode of transport to use.” This is crucial since women are more ‘time-poor’ in relation to men. Their caregiving roles necessitate fitting many tasks into small amounts of time.
Less women than men vote in Pakistan and gendered voter suppression is common, meaning that the concerns of women are not always on the forefront of the mind of Pakistani politicians – and this problem is exacerbated along ethnic and religious lines. This seems to suggest that the Pakistani government is ill-equipped to deal with unequal mobility for women and minorities.
On the other hand, privatization may not always be the best option since it can also prove costly for women. When corporations take over services that have traditionally being offered by the state, things can get messy. Here’s why: governments, even ones in countries with a corrupt system, are still accountable to the public and may depend on service-provision for re-election. The corporate takeover of public services – health, sanitation, transportation – results in essential utilities being filtered through the narrow lens of profit. Karachi’s privatized low-cost transport system functioned well after its initial inception but has since then grown into a bus and minivan nightmare that flaunts traffic rules and road safety, whilst also disregarding the concerns of women who are often poorer. It is not seen as financially viable to expend energy and resources in ensuring that their travel is safe. Low-cost private transportation providers often band together to attack government efforts at regulation or alternative transport schemes.
Parallel to this low-cost transport ‘mafia’ (a common locally used word to describe private transporter’s chokehold on transit) exists recently introduced ride-hailing apps like Careem and Uber who diligently give their drivers anti-harassment training but whose cost make them available to only financially well-off urban women. Not to mention, Pakistani women have reported many incidents of harassment on ride-hail cabs as well, not all of which are adequately dealt with.
Women-only transportation services have also sprung up, including ‘pink taxis’ and the She-Kab. But these are costly and hence may cater only to elite woman. A government committed to supporting female entrepreneurs and helping women travel safely may try to solve this problem by offering subsidies to small women-run travel-based startups that do not have the finances of international companies like Uber or Careem. But the debate over the benefits sex-segregation remains and many Pakistani female passengers have pointed out that simply putting women behind the wheels without addressing the socio-political structures of sexual violence only place both the woman passenger and the woman driver at high risk.
So what can be done? The government of Pakistan is attempting to wrest back some control over public mobility with the introduction of the Metro – a sprawling, low-cost, taxpayer funded bus system that runs throughout important urban cities of Islamabad, Rawalpindi and Lahore and is under construction in the metropolis of Karachi. Whilst the environmental cost of this project has been devastating, it is hoped that it will provide greater mobility to all Pakistanis. But the project has not – as of yet – attempted to seriously grapple with the thorny questions of gender equality and transit.
As part of its ‘Safe Cities’ project, UN women partnered with the Punjab (a province in Pakistan) government in 2017 to better understand women’s unique needs of safe and efficient mobility in the context of sex and cultural based challenges. The recommendations provided in their report have prompted the provincial government to vow to better address these issues, and may also have prompted its (much lauded) decision to awarded motorbikes to young women. The latter is a big deal in a country it is nearly impossible to spot a woman driving a bike, and many ride side-saddle even as passengers.
As construction for the Karachi metro is underway, the provincial government has planned to introduce women-only public buses, although it is not clear when exactly these will be running. Apart from that however, there seem to be no evidence that gender is being taken into account as Pakistan introduces mass transit systems in many cities. This is a flaw. For equitable commute, it is essential that women’s special needs be taken into account. Effective and gender-equitable transport is necessary to ensure that – amongst other things – women do not miss out on economic and professional opportunities for fear of uncomfortable travel.