Heather Allen, independent consultant on sustainable transport, climate change and gender
March 8th – International Women’s Day – gives us a good reason to reflect on progress on the variety of women’s issues that are hindering equality. Being safe and secure is a basic human value, yet personal security is still a major issue everywhere. In a woman’s world there are also more subtle links between personal security, public space and transport that I have been looking into more closely having just finished a review of published literature on this subject, to be published soon on the website of the FIA Foundation.
Many studies show that all over the world women use all forms of public transport (formal and informal, including minibus services, shared taxis etc) more than men and, more importantly, they usually rely on it more than men as they have fewer or no other mobility choices. Yet they are also more worried about using it, as their personal security is frequently compromised, and it appears that this may be getting worse rather than better.
Incidents often take place in public places, especially as women travel to and from places of education or to and from work. It comes as no surprise that it especially seems to occur on public transport, and not only in the developing world. To avoid this, women tend to use strategies that mean either they decide not to travel or they seriously change their travel habits. This impacts their access to opportunities, and ultimately their quality of life.
Harassment is a complex subject, and not made any easier by the subjective nature of how individuals interpret what might be considered harassment. In some cultures this is directed by social norms whilst in others it may be religious, faith or even income-based. We are not just talking about violence here, but rather behaviours that are unwanted, uninvited or that cause fear. Fear of it happening is as bad as what actually happens and it affects different women in different ways, making it difficult to apply scientific theory to understand why and how this happens. Collecting data on this is also made more difficult as the information can be spread across a number of security agencies, so much of the information can be considered anecdotal, unless it is obviously of a criminal nature.
Harassment would seem to be on the increase despite the high estimated level of non-reporting of incidents that were found internationally. In New York it is estimated that 96 per cent of sexual harassment and 86 per cent of sexual assault on the subway goes unreported; in Baku, Azerbaijan, none of the 162 out of 200 women who reported having been sexually harassed on the metro reported it to the appropriate authority. In Egypt, only 2.4 per cent of the 83 per cent of Egyptian women and 7.5 per cent of the 98 per cent of foreign women living or travelling in Egypt who had experienced sexual harassment in a public place reported it.
There is little documented evidence that women have either reduced their mobility horizons or changed their travel patterns entirely because of concerns over personal security. But we do know that all forms of harassment affect women deeply and reduce their confidence, and that they implement strategies to reduce the risk of this, which ultimately impacts their ability to move freely in public places. If this is directly associated with their transport options, it is also likely to affect their decisions to take up educational opportunities, join the labour market and influences the kinds of jobs they pursue.
In addition, if women pass on a negative value judgement to their children, those boys and girls will grow up thinking that public transport is unsafe. It is likely that this will become “a belief” as they grow into adulthood and as soon as they can, they will prefer to buy or share a car, motorbike or scooter – creating a vicious downward spiral of increased congestion even if every vehicle is cleaner than today!
So where does that lead us? Certainly farther away from where we want to be in terms of equal opportunities and sustainable development. Excluding women from being active in the labour market, for any reason should be considered to be out of order in today’s world. The McKinsey Global Institute estimates that if women in every country were to play an identical role to men in markets, as much as $28 trillion would be added to the global economy by 2025. If this exclusion or reduced opportunity is due to transport inequalities, we can do something about it, but only if we shift it to being a development rather than a security issue.
Both aspects are interdependent – the more active women are in the labour market the more they are able to demand safe and secure transport, while the less empowered they are the more socially exclusive transport becomes. Putting them in separate carriages may be a temporary solution, but it also underpins the concept that women should be kept apart and not be given equal rights.
By addressing both ends of this equation we can create a win, win, win situation – addressing equity, economic empowerment and improving quality of life. But we need to make sure that people do not think that harassment is unavoidable or acceptable, or that they will not be caught. Let’s start today in respect of women everywhere!
This article is based on work supported by the FIA Foundation. I would like to express my thanks to the FIA Foundation for its foresight and vision in supporting this research. The full report and executive summary can be downloaded here.
You are invited to attend a free FIA Foundation webinar on March 21st 14 -17h GMT. Details are available from Caroline Flynn ([email protected]).
At the upcoming International Transport Forum’s 2016 Annual Summit, 18-20 May 2016, Leipzig, Germany, there will be a debate on “Women in Transport: Mind the (gender) gap”.