It’s Time to Put Women in the Driving Seat
An article written by Nosheen Abbas for the BBC highlighting Pakistan’s first female cab driver Zahida Kazmi (http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-south-asia-12680075) got me thinking more broadly about issues of female mobility in developing countries. For my dissertation, I chose to examine urban property ownership (both land and housing) in Pakistan through the lens of gender. My motivation being that much of the discourse on women’s empowerment is heavily centered on issues such as access to education and health; gender-based violence and women’s political representation. While there is no denying that these remain core issues to be addressed by governments and policy-makers, the discourse so far has overlooked issues of women’s shelter and mobility, which are fundamental to any discussion of female empowerment. This is, however, beginning to change. Over the last few decades the issue of women’s rights to land and property has received substantive scholarly attention but the issue of female mobility still remains largely under highlighted.
Indeed, women’s increased mobility mediates their access to health facilities, to educational and economic opportunities and to markets for home-based women entrepreneurs. It can also facilitate escape from conditions of domestic violence and improve women’s bargaining power within the household and hence is a critical issue to be addressed in development policy circles.
A case study of CARE Bangladesh illustrates steps in the right direction. CARE Bangladesh started an initiative in 2003 that has trained 50 women to not only drive standard vehicles but also pick-ups and micro-buses. They employ only professional female drivers and find that women drivers are considered to be more law abiding, reliable, honest and less risk-taking as compared to their male counterparts. Several of these women drivers while relating their experiences reveal that they enjoy the freedom of movement and independence this job affords them as well as the possibility to see new places and earn decent wages. Other organizations such as BRAC and ActionAid have also followed suit and maintain that women drivers are paid the same wages as men.
The example of Zahida from the BBC article illuminates an interesting strategy. She purchased a car under the government scheme that was popular in Pakistan in the 1990s in which anyone could buy a brand new taxi in easy installments. Her story provides the impetus to question as to why a similar idea can not be translated into other contexts where such schemes can be designed to specifically target women clients. Another strategy could be exploring how banks or leasing companies can be incentivized to provide consumption credit to women borrowers who could use it to then purchase a car that could then be converted into an entrepreneurial activity such as starting a cab business (with profitable returns).
I should emphasize that enhancing female mobility is not exclusively about improving mechanisms through which women can purchase cars or enabling them to learn how to drive but equally about creating safer spaces for women to be mobile in the public sphere without fear or intimidation. Harassment in public transportation is a significant barrier to female mobility. Harassment of females on buses and trains is a core issue in South Asia and a major impediment to women who independently want to travel to the workplace, to their educational institutions or to pick up their children from school.
Three areas emerge for policy to be directed towards: (i) curbing sexual harassment practices on public transportation by sensitizing bus drivers and conductors towards having a zero tolerance policy for female harassment and effective media campaigns that convey the same message; (ii) increasing the number of female drivers by subsidizing the cost of learning how to drive, and institutionalizing women’s driver education in schools; and (iii) creating schemes that allow and encourage women to purchase cars either for consumption purposes or entrepreneurial purposes. While these policy prescriptions may sound plausible, they can be challenging to implement in several cultural contexts. In the case of Pakistan, segregation on the basis of gender limits women’s mobility in the public sphere and many women are often not allowed by their fathers, brothers and husbands to learn how to drive, let alone even purchase a car. In such cases, it is difficult for policy alone to bring about change – since what is needed is to counter mind-sets, through education and awareness towards the fact that women’s ability to drive and their right to feel safe in the public sphere is as fundamental a human right as any other.