Key message 2 – Safety concerns restrict women’s physical and economic mobility

In many countries, women face distinct challenges in accessing public transport. They feel unsafe walking to transportation stops and waiting at them. There are concerns over harassment and worries about social reputation, causing stress and discomfort (Sajjad et al., 2017, based on work in Pakistan). Besides weak rule of law, these challenges are linked to patriarchal norms around gender segregation that forbid women from coming into contact with men that are not their relatives. Consequently, less women access public spaces, perpetuating the perception of public spaces as ‘male spaces’.

Borker (2018) surveyed 4,000 students at Delhi University, India and found that women are willing to choose a college in the bottom-half of the quality distribution over a college in the top 20%; spend US$290 more annually on commuting than men; and travel 40 minutes more daily, for a transport route that is perceived to be safer.

The inability to travel freely constrains not just female education, skilling, and entry into the workforce, but also career progression. Women may turn down promotions if senior roles involve working late hours and/or travelling away from home. Similarly, female entrepreneurs may ‘choose’ to keep their businesses small. Given the restrictions on physical mobility, women tend to have weaker social networks and hence, may lose out on peer/mentor learning, and work-related information.

Field et al. (2015) find that when female customers of SEWA Bank, India, are given business skills training along with a friend they are more likely to take a loan and to use it for business purposes. These women were also found to have significantly higher household income and consumption levels four months after the intervention, and were less likely to report their occupation as housewife. Those who belonged to more restrictive social groups were particularly sensitive to peer involvement.

Women also find it harder to migrate for work, on account of safety concerns and family-related challenges. In an IGC project examining a large vocational training programme in India, Moore et al. (2018) find that while women are overall less likely to receive and accept job offers as compared to men, the gender gap in accepting jobs becomes much wider when the job involves moving away from home. Provision of migration support is seen to be associated with higher workforce participation and longer job tenures.

Lahore’s pink buses

In Lahore, Pakistan, the government introduced women’s-only “Pink Buses” on three routes in the city in 2012. The service operates on the same routes as regular buses that have separate sections for women. It makes 2–4 trips a day, finishing services by 3 pm. The programme is heavily subsidised and suffers from high financial losses as ridership is low.

In an IGC study led by Sajjad et al. (2017), the researchers conducted a survey of 81 Pink Bus passengers and six Pink Bus conductors to learn more about the user base and assess the programme’s strengths and areas for improvement.

The researchers conclude that while the government’s efforts to facilitate women’s ability to commute safely are commendable, the resources for these services could be utilised more efficiently.

Key findings:

  • While Pink Buses benefit their users substantially, they serve a very small fraction of women. There are several other women in the city and its peri-urban areas who do not even have access to a bus with a separate women’s compartment.
  • Since the bus arbitrarily completes 2–3 round trips per day on one of the routes, passengers cannot always plan their travel around bus timings. At least 35% of surveyed passengers felt that the service should run until the evening as they cannot use it for their return trip – a major shortcoming for working women.
  • Many women travelling on regular buses along the routes are not aware of the service.