Women represent 51 per cent of Pakistan’s population, but in a town like Karachi fewer than a dozen of the more than 60 seats in public buses are allocated for them. Then there is the compartment over the engine.
Despite the small number of seats available for women, the bus driver is skilful enough to squeeze up to two dozen female commuters into this compartment.
Besides limited space, women travelling on public transport often face verbal and physical harassment by staff and other male passengers. They often have to pay more for their fare and it is not uncommon for the bus to continue rolling while women are embarking or disembarking.
The most uncomfortable seats are those with their backs to the men’s compartment, where women run the risk of being molested by poking fingers and groping hands. To avoid this, they have to keep their backs straight and sit on the foremost part of the seat, no matter how difficult the ride may be.
Most of the women who ride buses are either going to work or to school. While working men may use motor bikes, there is no alternative for working women. For cultural and social reasons women cannot ride bikes − although they can be passengers on a bike.
According to Saad Gilani, Project Manager in the ILO country office in Islamabad, the ordeal of working women on buses is part of a bigger picture.
|Inappropriate behaviour and harassment in public spaces and in the workplace have greatly obstructed women's freedom of mobility.”|
“Women have found it difficult to contribute to the country's development because of the unsupportive environment they face in the working world. Inappropriate behaviour and harassment in public spaces and in the workplace have greatly obstructed women's freedom of mobility.”
Decent transport for women workersThis is where the ILO came in, with a project introducing women-friendly public transportation. The pilot included a campaign to change the behaviour of all relevant parties on a specific public transport route.
Drivers, conductors, transport owners, transport union, and members of the traffic police were informed about the country’s new anti-harassment laws and sensitized about social and ethical values − thus addressing major concerns of women commuters.
“Based on pictures and caricatures, motivating and deterring messages were displayed within the public transport system. The model was successfully pilot-tested and can now be replicated on a wider scale,” said Gilani.
Last February, the campaign was followed by a training course for 60 officers of the NH&MP. The officers will now become trainers themselves and sensitize colleagues, bus drivers and the transport union.
The course comprised information about training techniques, national laws prohibiting harassment in public places, relevant ILO standards, the significance of women’s productive mobility and guidance on how to create a decent environment in public transport.
In addition to formal training, materials were developed and displayed in public transport to educate passengers and drivers about the legal, social and religious implications of harassment and inappropriate attitudes towards women.
The idea is now to extend the pilot project in Islamabad to the whole country. The Pakistani city of Sialkot has already launched a bus service for women only. The service allows women to travel from the surrounding villages to the city for schooling, work, training and business.
“I want women to get a decent environment if they have to go out of their homes and work. Given the cultural constraints of women traveling far off distances, we need public transport facilities that cater specifically to women,” Federal Minister for Information and Broadcasting Dr Firdous Ashiq Awan told the press when she launched the new service last year.
The ILO training course was part of the Towards Gender Parity in Pakistan Project (TGP), which brings together the ILO and 14 other UN agencies in an effort to ensure equal access to decent work and productive employment for women and men in Pakistan.