Burden of safety: Public buses need to work for women

Women’s everyday travels put the burden of manufacturing the experience on them, when they should be tapped into building a more inclusive public infrastructure

By Saakshi Joshi
Published: Tuesday 10 November 2020
Women have a higher dependence on public transport than men. Photo: ITDP India

There is an advertisement we wish to direct your attention to. A woman tells us about a specific brand of milk powder she consumes every day. ‘Not just for myself though’: She speaks to us through the screen.

Cut to the scene which led to this blog piece.

The woman is standing inside a bus. Behind her is a man, lost in the magic of his smartphone. He supports himself with the grip hander above his head, yet, he ends up falling on her. The woman’s voice carries over from the previous scene.

She consumes the milk powder for the person who cannot keep himself under control (bas) inside a bus. This pun-intended voice over is drowned out by uplifting beats as our protagonist elbows the man behind her, putting him back in his place.

The intent of the advertisement, through different instances, is to show that women need stronger bones, especially once they have turned 30. A few comments on YouTube blasted the bus scene for demonising men. A problem, one of many, was the accountability thrust upon women for the travel experiences.

The peppy music accompanying the actor’s elbow push seemed celebratory. Her impeccable appearance and the music rejoicing her response were a far cry from real-life experiences of bus travels that we have observed and formally recorded as researchers.

That she puts on her headphones towards the end is collaborated by studies that discuss the use of mobile phones and headphones as defense mechanisms used by women while travelling. There is an expectation to disconnect from the real-time settings by using music as a shield.

Women have a higher dependence on public transport than men. We reaffirmed this in our on-going research, wherein our participants in Delhi — women aged between 19 and 60 years — used public transport for short and long trips. Where private vehicles were present, participants were passengers and never the drivers.

Female respondents, in our recent survey to understand the impact of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) on older adults’ mobilities, reaffirmed this.

For instance, in Delhi (where over 50 per cent female respondents were from households with income above Rs 80,000 per month), 48 per cent women reported using cars before the pandemic as passengers, compared to 53 per cent men who reported using cars as drivers.

In just the last decade, public transport, especially buses (or bus-stops), have been consistently cited in surveys and reports as spaces where women felt extremely unsafe and vulnerable due to a past occurrence or a fear of violence against them.

A study across six Indian states conducted by the United Nations Development Fund (UNDF) with the Breakthrough Trust (2017) highlighted that over 90 per cent women and girls experience sexual harassment in public spaces, including bus-stops and inside buses.

In-depth interviews with the research participants revealed that they were either harassed during the bus-trips, had witnessed it and / or heard about it. When not as captive users, literature on women’s use of public transport has found that women prefer opting for public transport modes over private modes. Thus, the choices happen to be more sustainable.

Then why are their needs not prioritised during the planning and design of the infrastructure? Should we not contribute to a more inclusive and sustainable transport system by tapping into women’s experiences of bus journeys?

Why begin with the advertisement?

By advocating stronger bones through a specific milk powder, what was highlighted was the preparation for a journey in the future. The protagonist was planning because she anticipated a certain type of in-vehicle experience, and not a pleasant one.

This was fictional, but women’s everyday bus travels put the burden of manufacturing the experience on them. Our researcher switched to the Delhi Metro from Delhi Transport Corporation buses in 2007 for everyday commute. Let us blame it on her weaker bones and her ability to afford a more expensive travel mode which could also be easily accessed.

Our on-going ethnographic research has shown that women start preparing for their bus travels right from the time they wake up. They account for gendered expectations of household duties, for children who need to be dropped off to school, for any change in route if the same group of unknown men glare again, avoid traffic jams and skip buses if they are overcrowded.

The preparations were so normalised as part of the participants’ routines that often they would often say they had no problem taking the bus, before speaking at length about the journey undertaken.

Along with strategies to overcome barriers, participants also carried the weight of consequences produced by such journeys. These, as we found, could produce severe physical and emotional reactions even after years, including violent shaking, embarrassment and anger.

No milk formula, no strong bones can ease that.

The bus was shown as a passive site of action and reaction between two commuters of different genders in the advertisement. But are our existing infrastructures not privy to such conspiratorial acts being performed?

Literature and experience tell us that public transport is a space designed for men and women and their needs are not primary there. The travel experiences of women are not removed from the patriarchal power relations that expose them to greater harm than men.

So, how about not limiting bus journeys to mere material movement from one point to another where women must save themselves? Rather, placing them within the larger ambit of women’s daily routines than often produce intense, unresolved feelings?

Experiences of women must be tapped into when designing transport policies where the ‘user’ or ‘woman’ is largely treated as a sterile, homogenous category.

City-level and site-specific interventions with end-users for different phases of the bus journeys can help in creating meaningful changes. Public infrastructure can help improve their daily routines by lifting the burden of unpleasant experiences.

Maybe, then we can let the music play.

Saakshi Joshi is a post-doctoral researcher for the EQUIMOB project with Utrecht University, the Netherlands, and Manipal Academy of Higher Education (MAHE).

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth

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