By Erass Haider
Throughout history, women had it rough. By almost every measure, it was easier to be a man than to be a woman. From being unwanted before birth to getting discarded at birth, rights of women in modern societies have come a long way. With the enlightenment ideas, seeds of change were sown. It would not have been possible without the struggle of hundreds and thousands of courageous women that today they are no more disregarded as they have been for the most part of history. Women, nowadays, are climbing the ladders that were labelled as not their natural domains. They are entering territories that were a no-go for them for a long time. Pay-gaps are bridging, women representation is getting fairer, their voices are getting heard and more and more opportunities are, now, becoming available to them. If anything, it was not an easy ride for them.
It needs no telling in the twenty-first century that by empowering women, societies can achieve long-sought utopias. By giving them, their long-due, say, social and economic prosperity draws nearer. As much as we understand the strength of women, we have, yet, not fully ensured their safety and empowerment equally everywhere. Even today, in many parts of the world, women remain immobile, insecure and disempowered.
Amongst other deliverables, transportation is a key pillar to support women empowerment. It offers them security, mobility, and freedom. With the surge in public transport infrastructure and launch of ridesharing services in Pakistan, mobility has improved manifold. However, there remain serious gaps, especially around women protection.
Women remain deterred from taking public transportation due to safety and social reputation concerns. Walking in unsafe and poorly-lit neighbourhoods, waiting at bus stops and taking transport overcrowded with men puts a number of women off from commuting. Furthermore, there are usually no fixed schedules. This results in longer waiting time at bus stops, hence more susceptible to harassment.
Pakistan is the fourth worst country for women according to the rankings of the Women, Peace and Security Index last year. A study by Center for Economic Research in Pakistan (CERP) reported 70% of the surveyed men (out of 1,000 households across Lahore) discouraged their female family members from using public wagon services. In these wagon services, there is very limited seating capacity exclusive to women. Moreover, when compartments do exist, they are not fully segregated. This results in ungentlemanly staring, uncivil comments and inappropriate touching by fellow men passengers and service staff. Most drivers and conductors, themselves, lack any sort of training in regard to passenger harassment and/or dealing with passenger-to-passenger harassment. Recently, there are a number of women transportation services running in Pakistan, however their services, so far, remain very limited geographically.
Thanks to the courage of today’s women, they have started speaking up for their rights. Be it be the appalling harassment claims under #MeToo movement or incidents of misconduct during commuting, women are voicing out their concerns. In a study by CERP, six out of every ten women reported one or more such, personal, incident while using public transport. In another study, 30% of the surveyed women rated walking in their respective neighbourhoods as “extremely unsafe”.
Ridesharing companies like Uber and Careem have offered a useful alternative to an otherwise overburdened public-transport infrastructure. They are providing job opportunities to thousands of Pakistani drivers – of which approximately 98% are men – catering to the ever-increasing demand for transportation. Due to the male-dominance in ridesharing companies of Pakistan, a number of incidents happened where women’s safety was compromised. But, sadly, no serious actions were taken by the operators.
The question is where do women of our society go to get a safe ridesharing experience? A redefined ride-hailing service from Boston, Safr (Android, iOS), exclusively for women drivers and riders is trying to answer the dilemma. Safr is currently registering drivers to ensure safe transportation and financial security for its users. Let’s see if it succeeds to empower women and improve gender balance in Pakistan!
(The author Eraas Haider is a freethinker currently residing in Germany. He is interested in Human Rights and issues of Human Development. Follow him on Twitter)