Making Public Transportation Work for Urban Women: Challenges and Priorities
By James Ladi Williams, Research Analyst, Ammar Malik, Non-resident Fellow, Sara McTarnaghan, Research Associate at the Urban Institute, a partner in USAID’s Communications, Evidence and Learning (CEL) project.
Besides facing domestic and workplace violence, women living in urban areas around the world experience gender-based violence (GBV) in public transportation systems. Sexual harassment is the most prevalent form of GBV in these settings, including offenses such as indecent exposure, unwanted touching, and stalking.
Our policy brief finds mounting evidence of the extent of this problem worldwide: 97 percent of women surveyed in Kathmandu, 81 percent in Baku, and 78 percent in Karachi report being sexually harassed on public transport. About 40 percent of women interviewed in Buenos Aires reported experiencing sexual harassment on public transport within the last 12 months.
These figures likely understate the problem because sexual crimes against women often go unreported due to socio-cultural factors that discourage reporting, an absence of comprehensive mechanisms for reporting, and a lack of trust in available justice systems.
Available research points to a few patterns of GBV in urban transport. Risk of sexual victimization is significant for women across various means of transportation and timing of harassment often coincides with women’s routine activities such as traveling to the marketplace, school, or work.
The consequences of sexual harassment in public transportation systems for women are grave. Most women report fear of experiencing sexual harassment while in transit. This is an infringement on their dignity and fundamental rights. Women who have been sexually harassed experience anxiety and psychological distress. On account of these fears—and previous experiences of GBV—women modify their behavior by avoiding night travel or limiting their use of public transportation or avoiding it entirely.
Public transportation is a critical service that links women to jobs and social services, such as education and healthcare, but sexual harassment weakens this link, limiting opportunities for women to benefit from the advantages that urban environments offer.
Importantly, public transportation use is not gender neutral: women have specific needs and constraints in using public transport systems. Yet, transport systems around the world are often planned without sufficient consideration of the differences between how men and women experience urban spaces. What’s more, the lack of data on women’s experiences within public transportation systems leaves policymakers without a full grasp of the scale of the problem, let alone priorities for a response.
Still, several types of interventions to address GBV in public transportation spaces are gaining traction, although the evidence base supporting them is limited. They include security initiatives such as increased security staff presence as a preventive measure; women-only transport options to keep perpetrators away from potential victims; awareness campaigns; and legal measures designed to make it harder for men to get away with abusing women.
Against the backdrop of complex urban governance challenges, particularly weak municipal capacity in finance, planning, and enforcement, implementing any of these solutions is challenging—especially in rapidly urbanizing developing countries.
To be most effective, interventions to address GBV in public transportation by governments, USAID and other donors should:
- Recognize that public transportation is not gender neutral; thus, societies must tackle fundamental culture changes that would center women’s safety and mobility needs in the design and delivery of transportation services.
- Align transportation systems with broader behavior change efforts combatting social attitudes and norms that underpin gender inequality within and beyond the public transportation context.
- Develop and implement policy and legal frameworks, which enable and empower stakeholders to report and respond to sexual harassment.
- Improve public transportation agencies/providers capacity to enforce policies designed to ensure women’s safety in public transportation.
- Report gender-differentiated data to allow for a better understanding of women’s experiences in public transportation systems and to equip authorities with information required to respond.
GBV on public transportation is a complex challenge and there are no one size fits all solution. A broad recognition of the gendered dimensions of public transportation must underpin the design and implementation of solutions. Such solutions will also need to be tailored to local conditions to make significant contributions toward making public transportation work for women.