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“The ability to get from point A to B is a basic right”

— Fizzah Sajjad, urban planner

“The ability to get from point A to B is a basic right”

The News on Sunday (TNS): People often say ‘there are so many women out and about as compared to 10 years ago, what more do you want?’ To what extent is this true?

Fizzah Sajjad (FS): Yes, there are more women visible in public spaces than there were 10 years ago. Lahore’s transport master plan data suggests that there has been a 136 per cent increase in the daily number of female trips between 1991 and 2012. However, simultaneously, there has been a 213 per cent increase in the daily number of male trips. As a result, while the number of women travelling has increased, the percentage of total trips made by women on any given day has decreased from 30 per cent to 25 per cent. Even if we account for methodological errors, this suggests stagnation, not improvement. It also helps to give a better sense of what we already know: with the exception of some bazaars/markets, public spaces in Pakistan are male-dominated. And this is Lahore, which compared to other cities has a greater number of women travelling for various reasons. It is not simply a question of women’s visibility increasing, but a question of experiences in public spaces. While there are spaces that women can easily access and navigate, in most instances women who step outside their house experience significant challenges ranging from concerns about safety, harassment, and social stigma. This has a direct impact on educational attainment, labour force participation, and the ability to complete everyday tasks. So, yes perhaps there are more women out, but we need a lot more to change.

TNS: Why does women’s mobility matter? On a personal, social and state level, what positive impact can women’s mobility bring about?

FS: Why does men’s mobility matter? It feels a bit absurd to even ask that question, right? Women’s mobility matters for the same reasons — to be able to fulfil your potential at a very fundamental level, to get personal tasks done, to go to work, to meet others, to participate in leisure activities, to keep society functioning in a healthy fashion. There are social and economic benefits of women being mobile; they can contribute to the economy, complete an education, improve their health, but the ability to get from one point to another without fear, with confidence, is important on its own. It is a basic right that everyone should have.

TNS: What are some of the major reasons women’s mobility is hampered?

FS: The question of women’s mobility and presence in public spaces is structural in nature and has deep roots in the way society functions. The division of labour, for instance, within a household that establishes a woman’s rightful place in the private sphere/in the home and a man’s in the public sphere/outside the home automatically excludes women from public life. It is no surprise then that women don’t take as many trips as men. A study by Kate Vyborny and Erica Field shows that 40 per cent of women in Pakistan don’t work because their husbands don’t give them permission to work outside the home. Additionally, the lack of safe and affordable transport options, adequate infrastructure, fear of harassment, limited visibility of women, and lack of job opportunities restrict women’s mobility further.

TNS: If the reasons behind women’s mobility are socio-cultural, then is it the provincial government’s responsibility to help? What should provincial governments be doing to help women become more mobile?

FS: Since socio-cultural factors restrict women’s mobility, it is ultimately a question of politics that can potentially open up spaces for women. Until notions of gender norms, the division of labour within a household, the dichotomy between public/private spheres changes, the space for women will remain restricted. These changes need to take place at both the community and city scale. The government definitely has a role to play. For starters, it should increase awareness of laws against sexual harassment in public spaces, encourage reporting of incidents, and take strict action. A recent safety audit of public transport in Lahore showed that over 90 per cent of women surveyed are unaware of existing laws, emergency helplines, and mobile phone apps. Secondly, as women rely greatly on walking and public transport, the government can also improve pedestrian access and public transport facilities. Based on our research in Lahore, of the various stages in a journey, women experience extreme discomfort while waiting at stops as men stare, pass comments, or offer them rides. To help with this, the government can improve physical bus stop infrastructure, offer information about wait times that can reduce uncertainty, and encourage women to report harassment. In addition, it can also increase policing, provide female public toilets, train staff regarding sexual harassment on public transport, provide street lights, and offer assistance with women’s employment opportunities and transport to schools. Recently, there have been new initiatives, such as motorcycle trainings, safety audits. This is great, but these need to take place in a more systematic manner within transport planning. NGOs can help facilitate this process, aide in an understanding of women’s experiences for planning purposes, conduct sexual harassment trainings, etc.

TNS: Women-only services (entire wagons or buses for women) seem to win large favour in our society. Is this a feasible option in the long term?

FS: Women-only services do win favour in our society but the question of segregated transport services is an extremely polarising one. Before determining whether this is a feasible option in the long run, we need to first assess the impact that women-only transport has on mobility, on educational attainment, and on labour force participation. The Center for Economic Research in Pakistan is conducting a study exactly on this question so we are yet to learn what they find. Personally, I am of the view that women-only transport is a feasible option in the short term depending on the need. If women-only transport helps women to step out of their homes, to induce new travel, and allows women to travel more comfortably then why not? Yet, this isn’t needed everywhere. Our research showed that although women-only buses allow women to travel comfortably, they may not be needed along bus routes which have separate compartments for women. Instead, they may be needed on wagon-only routes as wagons only have two seats designated for women. We also found that women-only services are important for women who travel daily. In peri-urban areas, however, a larger vehicle with a separate section for women is preferable to a women-only service as housewives prefer to travel with male members of their households. So there’s no one solution to the problem. We need to design both short-term and long-term solutions based on an understanding of people’s needs in different localities.


Read also: Fearful of the streets

TNS: Can you think of cities in the global south that have vastly improved women’s mobility and are there any lessons for us to learn from?

FS: There are multiple such cities, however, in most instances, it is too soon to assess whether they have vastly improved mobility —- particularly as there are multiple evaluations underway. In Tehran, women-only buses are said to have allowed women to become the majority of bus riders in the city. In Mexico City, women-only transport, a public campaign to facilitate women’s mobility, monitoring stations to report harassment, a 24-hour hotline number, and amendments to existing laws have helped. In Bangalore, the Bangalore Transport Company has established women’s safety committees, which include representatives from transport agencies, NGOs, women’s groups and policy, which is said to have aided with gender-sensitive policies. There are also various initiatives that have been taken in Pakistan (by Varan bus services, Rawalpindi Transport Authority, Lahore Transport Company, ILO, etc). Yet the interventions have been small-scale and most have only been tested over a short period of time. The key lesson is that women’s access, travel patterns and experiences — which are also dependent on class, age, marital status — are different from men’s. We need to recognise this in a more systematic manner within planning efforts, in small cities as well as metropolitan cities. We also need more women to be involved with these processes. Lahore’s 2004 Master Plan, for instance, did not have a single woman as part of the core team. It is little surprise that our plans are gender-blind, and the city isn’t built with women’s needs in mind. But it is also important to remember that improving women’s mobility is not purely a technical matter to be solely addressed through transport interventions. We need change at the societal level for things to change in the long run.

The interview was conducted via email

Maham Javaid

One comment

  • Hi Maham
    I am a volunteer with a counselling helpline in Pakistan and i am writing a blog post on divorce and stigma associated with it. while searching i came across your article , is there a way i can get the latest statistics on divorce in pakistan or any source that i can search for the data
    as i see in of your articles you provide the demographic data of 2015
    thank you

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