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 system in the northwestern city of Peshawar, Ms. Jabeen said she was able to pursue her master’s degree, keeping her dream of becoming a botanist alive.
“My parents had decided to put my education on hold…because they didn’t like me riding in the beat-up Mazda wagons,” Jabeen said, referring to the city’s private minibuses as she sat in a shiny BRT bus on her way to university. .
They relented, she said, because the new bus stop was just a few minutes from her front door and dropped her off at the university gates.
Launched in 2020, BRT has proven hugely popular with women in the ultra-conservative city, where burkas and veils are standard female dress and 90% of women reported feeling unsafe using public transport in a 2016 survey. .
Sexual harassment, including staring, whistling and touching, is widespread on buses or at bus stops in Pakistan, making many women wary of traveling alone and discouraging many from seeking paid work, according to the World Bank.
But in Peshawar, a quarter of the seats are reserved for women on the fleet of diesel-electric hybrid buses, which are equipped with CCTV cameras, guards and have well-lit stations, making female passengers feel more comfortable.
About 15% of the 2,000 BRT employees are also women, said M. Umair Khan, a spokesman for TransPeshawar, the state-owned company that operates the BRT.
He said such changes helped explain why women now make up about 30% of bus riders in the city, up from just 2% two years ago.
Bicycles and rickshaws
Pakistani women rely more on public transport than men, who are more likely to have cars, bicycles or motorcycles, meaning they have “severe mobility restrictions” without good service, said Lala Rukh Khan, project manager at the Center for Health based in Lahore. Economic Research.
That makes it difficult for them to work or study outside the home, or to build professional networks, socialize and engage in leisure activities, said Hadia Majid, director of the Saida Waheed Gender Initiative at the Lahore University of Management Sciences.
“Safe, reliable and affordable public transportation makes it possible for workers to participate in a broader job search and find jobs more suited to their particular skill set,” added Ms. Majid.
Women rarely ride bicycles or motorcycles in Pakistan, and it is considered unsafe to travel by rickshaw. Shared buses or vans full of men put many women off or, as in Ms. Jabeen’s case, cause family members to stop them from riding in them.
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 about 24% in 2015, World Bank data shows.
But with frequent buses, dedicated lanes, subway-like stations, and improved connectivity throughout the city, BRT has made travel cheaper and faster, as well as safer.
Top fares are about 30 Pakistani rupees ($0.16), making the service especially popular with women from low-income households.
TransPeshawar employee Umme Salma said she used to spend 280 rupees commuting to and from work every day by private rickshaw and minibus. Not only does she save a fortune on fares, but her commute to work is shorter.
“I also save a total of 30 minutes each day in travel time,” said Ms. Salma.
‘Last mile’ problems
But there is still room for improvement, said CERP’s Ms. Khan.
Ms. Salma, like many passengers, has to walk the 15-minute distance between her home and the bus stop, a “last mile” connectivity issue that must be overcome to ensure the women’s journey is completely safe, said.
“Investments in high-quality public transport must also be complemented by other policies that make it safe for women to go door-to-door,” she added.
Poor street lighting, a lack of police patrols in isolated areas, and poor infrastructure for pedestrians and public toilets can make the last leg of the journey dangerous, women’s rights activists say.
For Madiha Shakir, a new traveler 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 waited for my husband to take me to the market because she was afraid to go out alone,” said Mrs. Shakir, a housewife, on board a bus.
“I can’t express how liberating it has been for me,” he said.
This story was reported by the Thomson Reuters Foundation. Reuters staff writer Annie Banerji contributed to this report.