Economic network

Pakistani bus network offers women a ticket to work and study

Islamabad: Pakistani student Mah Jabeen credits a new public bus system in her hometown with saving her from being stuck at her parents’ house doing chores – or even having to get married.

Thanks to the Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) system in the northwestern city of Peshawar, 23-year-old Jabeen said she was able to pursue her master’s studies, keeping her dream of becoming a botanist alive.

“My parents had decided to quit my studies…because they didn’t like me traveling in the disheveled Mazda wagons,” Jabeen said, referring to the city’s private minibuses as he sat on a bus Brilliant BRT en route to college.

They relented, she said, because the new bus stop was just minutes from her front door and dropped her off at the college gates.

Launched in 2020, the BRT has proven hugely popular among women in the city, where burkas and veils are standard women’s wear and 90% of women said they felt unsafe on public transport in a 2016 survey.

According to the World Bank, sexual harassment such as staring, whistling and touching is widespread on buses or at bus stops, making many women reluctant to travel alone and discouraging many others from seeking paid work.

But in Peshawar, a quarter of the seats are reserved for women on the fleet of diesel-electric hybrid buses, which are fitted with CCTV cameras, guards and well-lit stations, making female passengers feel more at ease. easy.

About 15% of the BRT’s 2,000 employees are also women, said Mr. Umair Khan, spokesman for TransPeshawar, the state-owned company that operates the BRT.

He said such changes have helped explain why women now make up around 30% of bus travelers in the city, up from just 2% two years ago.

BICYCLES AND RICKSHAWS

Pakistani women are more dependent on public transport than men, who are more likely to have cars, bicycles or motorbikes, meaning they are ‘severely constrained to mobility’ without good service, said Lala Rukh Khan, Project Manager at the Lahore Center for Economy. Research (CERP).

This makes it harder for them to work or study outside the home, or build professional networks, socialize and participate in leisure activities, said Hadia Majid, director of Saida Waheed Gender Initiative at Lahore University of Management Sciences.

“Safe, reliable and affordable public transport allows workers to engage in more thorough job search and find jobs more suited to their particular skills,” Majid added.

Women rarely ride bicycles or motorbikes in Pakistan, and riding rickshaws is considered dangerous. Buses or shared vans full of men have deterred many women or, as in Jabeen’s case, caused family members to prevent them from traveling with them.

The security control room of the new bus system.
Image credit: Reuters

These issues help explain why Pakistan’s female labor force participation rate is among the lowest in the world, falling to 23% in 2019 from around 24% in 2015, according to World Bank data.

But with frequent buses, dedicated lanes, metro-like stations and improved connectivity across the city, BRT has made travel cheap and fast, as well as safer.

Maximum fares cost around 30 Pakistani rupees ($0.16), making the service particularly popular among women in low-income households.

Umme Salma, an employee of TransPeshawar, said she spent Rs 280 to and from work every day by rickshaw and private minibus. Not only does she save a fortune in fares, but her daily commutes are shorter.

“I also save a total of 30 minutes every day on travel time,” Salma said.

“LAST MILE” PROBLEMS

But there is still room for improvement, said CERP’s Khan.

Salma, like many passengers, has to walk the 15 minutes between her house and the bus stop – a ‘last mile’ connectivity issue that needs to be overcome to ensure women’s journeys are completely safe, it said. she declared.

“Investments in high-quality public transit must also be complemented by other policies that enable women to travel safely door-to-door,” she added.

Poor street lighting, a lack of police patrols in isolated areas and little pedestrian infrastructure and public toilets can make this last stretch dangerous, say women’s rights activists.

For Madiha Shakir, a new commuter on the BRT system, the buses alone have been a life-changing improvement.

“I was never allowed to use public transport alone. When I got married, I was waiting for my husband to take me to the market because I was afraid to go out alone,” Shakir, a housewife, said on board a bus.

“I can’t tell you how liberating it has been for me,” she said.