Urban Wire Using technology to improve women’s safety in Pakistan’s urban transit systems
Ammar A. Malik, Yasemin Irvin-Erickson, Faisal Kamiran
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This post has been edited from the original version published by the Sexual Violence Research Initiative.

As cities around the world invest billions in new mass transit systems, people’s experiences and fears of victimization in public spaces cause gender disparities in accessibility. Gendered social norms regarding women’s traditional role in society and control over income further limits women’s access to mass transit systems.

Although fear of crime affects all transit users, sexual harassment and victimization is a larger concern for women and girls, and it restricts their mobility and hampers access to economic opportunity. As we learn more about this problem, we are looking for solutions, including technology, that can lower the risk of victimization and help women feel more safe on public transit.

How rampant is this problem?

Women around the world face sexual harassment and violence in many forms. In addition to more widely discussed issues of intimate partner violence and workplace harassment highlighted by the #MeToo movement, women also feel unsafe and are sexually harassed in public spaces.

Global surveys show that even in industrialized countries, women report feeling considerably less safe than men walking alone at night in their communities. The situation is worse in developing countries, where the majority of urban women in India (79 percent), Thailand (85 percent), and Brazil (89 percent) report being victims of harassment or violence in public. Pakistani cities are no exception, where a 2014 study found that 78 percent of women in Karachi have “experienced sexual harassment or felt harassed or uncomfortable.”

Thousands of women in cities around the world may stay home for fear of victimization, perpetuating prevalent social norms and further restricting their mobility. Despite efforts to develop gender-sensitive transport planning and operations, many cities are failing to address women’s unique transport requirements.

How do women use transit differently than men?

Despite the pervasiveness of this problem, the literature offers few insights into the stages of women’s and men’s transit journeys where physical or social circumstances make them most fearful of experiencing harassment or violence.

To bridge this gap, the Urban Institute and the Information Technology University Punjab formed a partnership to map hot spots where transport users have experienced violence or harassment or felt unsafe in Lahore, Pakistan. Following the whole-journey approach, we are using a custom-built smartphone application to explore how variations in transport operations, vehicle facilities, transit station design, and urban land-use affect citizens’ perceptions of safety from their doorsteps to their destinations and back.

In preparation for more detailed fieldwork, we observed and documented users’ experiences in approaching transport systems from home, including walking, waiting at curbsides and designated bus stops, boarding and alighting various public transport vehicles, and interacting with fellow passengers and transit agency staff during ticketing, queueing, and riding. Our team spent hundreds of hours on 12 multimodal routes. We aimed to cover all geographies of Lahore during morning, afternoon, and evening hours. We also interviewed transit planners, government officials, drivers, conductors, and security staff, and we conducted focus group discussions with female passengers.

What have we found so far? 

While preliminary, the following insights emerge from our initial research:

The extent and form of this problem is not fully recognized and is seldom discussed in public forums, likely because of social taboos associated with sexual harassment. Because most women do not react to or report verbal or sexual harassment, transit agencies’ official complaint data leads to the incorrect conclusion that Lahore does not have a harassment problem. Women are potentially unaware of their rights under local laws, are unaware of the existence of complaint mechanisms, minimize acts of sexual harassment, blame themselves, fear retaliation by perpetrators, or simply do not believe that reporting will trigger any response from law enforcement.

Of the transit agency staff that were interviewed, all the male drivers and some female security staff had little or no knowledge of what constitutes sexual harassment or of gender-sensitive responses to incidents of sexual harassment or violence should they be reported. There is also no visible signage making riders aware of the penalties for perpetrating harassment or violence.

Despite major public investments in overhauling Lahore’s transport system, lack of interoperability between transport options, poor information on and adherence to schedules on traditional routes, and unmarked pickup and drop-off locations increase women’s vulnerability.

How can we best provide evidence-based policy recommendations?

Through engagements with stakeholders in the Punjab provincial government’s various departments, we have a captive policy audience eager to learn and apply lessons. Three government agencies have jointly launched the Women Safety Smartphone Application, providing users information on women’s protections against harassment in public spaces under local laws and allowing them to report complaints.

We plan to create an interactive map of the city identifying harassment hot spots, such as unlit pedestrian bridges and their consistent physical features, such as overcrowding. Accompanied by passengers’ safety perception scores of these and other places, the tool will offer decisionmakers descriptions and photographs of problematic areas and suggestions for low-cost improvements.

In future phases of research, we hope to undertake rigorous impact evaluations of the most promising interventions emerging from Lahore’s revitalized transit system. For example, we could assess how women’s fear of harassment has been reduced (or otherwise) because of the paperless “smart” ticketing system that eliminates conductor-passenger or driver-passenger interactions. Similarly, with support from local authorities, we could undertake and evaluate the impact of information campaigns aimed at increasing male riders’ and transit staff’s awareness of the long-term psychological and social impacts of harassment on women and their families.


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Tags Victims of crime International social sector reform International civil society and democratic institutions Women and girls International development and governance