From an early age, I experienced some of the problems of women’s mobility in the city myself. Whether a woman or girl is working outdoors or a homemaker, educated or empowered, the situation is broadly the same. We often must begin the day thinking about how to dress in order to be safe, and then where to sit, dawn or dusk, to use public transport or not, and so many other issues (that amount to personal defence) just in order to move within our own communities. This is not freedom to access our cities.

That’s why ActionAid is sharing our research into the need for improvements to public bus transport, speaking to women in São Paulo (Brazil), Dhaka (Bangladesh) and Abuja (Nigeria). These improvements to keep women safe in their cities should be paid for by closing corporate tax breaks and treaties that, in total, add up to billions of lost dollars.

Poor street lighting and a lack of quality public transport have been discussion topics for a long time. But this is the first time I’ve experienced such conversations that focus particularly on women’s vulnerability and how it restricts women’s and girls’ freedom to move. And it’s none too soon. It is intolerable that urban public spaces are far less safe for women – it impedes our ability to not only live our lives but to fully participate in society.

Predominantly male transport support staff, a lack of public toilets, inadequate policing and multiple other obstacles combine to form very real barriers to women and girls, making them think twice when leaving their houses. This daily dilemma restricts not only women’s mobility but also limits the freedom to use their rights to access the city.

Public transport must be gender responsive

A gender responsive approach to public transport is not simply about ensuring women and men have exactly the same access to, use and control over the service. It begins with the question of whether investments in transportation account for the differences in needs and priorities that often accompany different genders.

We must ask whether the freedom to use public transport is fair, whether it takes into account what people practically need. And these practicalities are undeniably influenced by gender – women who are involved in unpaid care work such as childcare or looking after the elderly, often combined with paid work, navigate their cities quite differently from men. Public transport is not a neutral space, and gender-blind policies restrict women’s opportunities and exacerbate inequalities.

After completing overtime at the factory we were going home in a local minibus and as there was no space in the back one of us had to sit with the driver…after a few minutes the driver started groping the girl sitting in the front…she got nervous and did not utter a word… when the minibus came to a halt she immediately got out of the bus and slapped the driver with her shoes in front of everyone…

In Bangladesh, the law states that 9 seats out of 53 should be reserved for women and people with disabilities in public buses. The government increased the number of priority seats to 13 in 2015, but there has not been any visible implementation of this change so far. The rest are supposedly general seats for everyone, but in practice because of sexism towards women by male staff and male passengers, the general seats are regularly all occupied by men.

When we started working on Safe Cities for Women & Girls campaign, the baseline survey conducted by ActionAid Bangladesh in 2014 gave us information on how public services are linked with sexual & gender based violence. From that report, we learned that 48% Bangladeshi women surveyed experienced obscene language used by bus drivers and conductors. 66% reported the bus terminals to be unsafe. The same report found that 56% of cases of harassment are associated with boarding transport, 22% were at ticket counters, 4% during rides and 18% of bus drivers and conductors themselves. As a women, I was bit aware about the outrageous about the issue. But I was simply astonished to learn about the number and percentage of the volume of incidence. I feel helpless. Sometimes, I feel helpless and unfortunate as well to enjoy my rights to live a cheerful life in my own city. 

The study also revealed how women adopt different tactics to avoid sexual harassment: avoiding crowded places (23.8%), avoiding using public transport at all (13.3%), avoiding wearing colorful clothes (21.9%), and carrying equipment for self-defense (2.9%). However, a fourth of the women (24%) said that they do not use any particular tactics because they feel that nothing will help them.

There is a way to help

In Dhaka there are currently 9,311 registered buses and 8,459 registered minibuses. It is estimated that an additional 3,000 buses are needed to meet current demand. The cost of purchasing these 3,000 needed extra buses would equate to around US$207 million, with each bus costing on average US$69,000 (excluding operational costs). These cost calculations are for buses with priority seats for women but without ramps for people with disabilities. Installation of security cameras on state-funded buses would cost roughly US$500 for two cameras per bus, and would cost approximately US$1.5 million to fit every bus in the city with two security cameras.

These aren’t small numbers, so the big question now is how can these measures be afforded?

Recent research carried out by ActionAid shows that Bangladesh is losing approximately US$85 million a year from just one clause in its tax treaties that severely restricts the rights of Bangladesh to tax dividends of overseas companies. With a change in just one clause in its tax treaties, Bangladesh could take an important step towards meeting the huge demand for better, more available public transport. US$85 million a year could go a long way to significantly and measurably improving the availability of buses, and thereby improving the lives of millions of women and girls commuting on a daily basis.

The Sustainable Development Goals, which our governments signed up to in 2015, emphasise the mandate of states to provide safe, affordable, accessible and sustainable transport systems for all (specifically subsection 11.2). This includes expanding public transport systems while paying special attention to the needs of those in vulnerable situations, women, children, people with disabilities and older people.

You have a right to the Freedom to Move

When women and girls cannot access public transport, or cannot access public places safely, their rights to education, health, mobility, and employment are impeded and violated. This invisible, institutional gender-blindness increases women’s inequality.

Our report, titled Freedom To Move, explores the details behind the problem of gender-blind public transport in three of the largest cities in the developing world: Abuja, Dhaka and São Paulo.

Tax revenue is one of the most important, sustainable and predictable sources of public finance. Shockingly, developing countries are losing billions of dollars of corporation tax revenue every year.

We believe that public transport must be available, accessible and safe for women and girls, addressing their needs and reducing gender inequalities. Governments must include women in the design of urban planning and public transport systems. Moreover, governments should ensure that public transport providers and their staff live up to agreed standards and support women’s right to freedom of movement within their city. Right now, you can help by joining the movement for fair tax to help pay for safe cities for women and making your solidarity visible. Please share this article on whichever social network you use most.

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