Mobility, for women, is an arena marked by contestation, insecurity and limited accessibility. Academic studies define mobility not only in terms of the actual physical usage of modes of transportation but also as the construction of potential opportunities for access and action for women. Anyone remotely acquainted with the Pakistani street, be it rural or urban, will almost immediately attest to the fact that women’s mobility in this country is disproportionately more restricted than men. A mere count of the number of female pedestrians, bus, rickshaw and car drivers or motorbike riders, would support the foregoing conclusion. There is, of course, a security dimension to this observed phenomenon, particularly with regard to the use of public transportation. Yet, the gendered aspect of the mobility question cannot be denied.
The International Labour Organisation, in a report titled “Decent Transportation for Women”, has found that although public transportation in Pakistan, is in general, afflicted by insufficiency of resources, ineffective planning and poor coordination, the said state of affairs impacts women more severely and exacerbates their socioeconomic exclusion. It is hardly surprising then that news reports and footage of the women’s “pink” rickshaw scheme, launched a few weeks back in Lahore by an NGO, the Environment Protection Fund, caused much stir and excitement. The scheme offers pink rickshaws to female drivers on instalments for the purpose of safe transportation of women or families. Recent calls for implementation of the Government of Punjab’s “pink” scooty scheme, proposed in 2013, have likewise caught media attention. Battery-operated pink scooters, with a 50-cc engine capacity, are apparently to be distributed among deserving young women on merit basis. Both initiatives, if effectively implemented and thereafter extended to other (particularly semi-urban and rural) parts of Pakistan, could transform the lives of many women.
The expected impact is at one level symbolic. Women continually need to mediate through socio-cultural constructions of permissible female behaviour. The public sphere is, to varying extents, a disreputable and unsafe place where the ‘good’, ‘virtuous’ woman does not venture. The street, then, classifies as the most prohibited of public spaces. How many women here have encountered resistance upon expressing a desire to take the wheel or absolute horror at the suggestion of riding a bicycle? The pink rickshaw and scooter schemes challenge the sanctity of the public/private divide, and provide room for greater visibility to women on the street — as drivers, passengers and economically active members of our community.
The impact may, at the same time, be more real, leading to measurable changes in other socio-economic indicators of women’s empowerment. Across the world, women bear the greater burden of poverty. According to a World Bank report on “Gender and Mobility in the Developing World” (2012), the limited mobility of women, however, means that many remain confined to low paid work, available close to home, often in the informal sector, thereby further consolidating the gendered poverty gap. Female health is also linked to the mobility question. The World Bank Report identifies the lack of transport to accessible health care facilities as a major cause of child mortality and pregnancy-related female mortality. The limited mobility of women, particularly in rural areas, also contributes significantly to the dismal state of female education in developing countries.
Mobility then is more than a number count. It is a determinant of women’s access to the most basic human rights. The freedom of movement is, in fact, itself recognised, under our Constitution and international instruments, as an essential human right. The “Pink” schemes are then as much warranted within a wider human rights framework. Critics argue that there is an essential disconnect between the nature of these schemes and the conservative social milieu in which they will have to operate. The eventual discontinuance of the Pink Bus service, introduced in Lahore in 2012, by reason of lack of adequate demand is presented as a case in point. It is argued that female-only transportation is at best a short-term solution that will not address the deeper-rooted attitudes that impinge on women’s mobility. While such attitudinal change is necessary, are women to remain waiting till the environment around them becomes more tolerant of their mobility, for how long and at what cost?
Published in The Express Tribune, April 21st, 2015.