Update November 7, 2015

Dhaka 1-13 am, 27-September, 2021

Women’s commuting in Dhaka city: A critical challenge

Sumel Sarker


07 November 2015, Nirapad News: Women commuting are connected with their productivity, empowerment and social equity, and there is an obvious link between commuting and transportation system of a country. A country’s social structure and economic activities have notable implications for the development of transportation system. Though travel activity patterns of working men and women are different, transport policies in different countries are geared primarily to address the needs of men.
In Bangladesh, women are primarily involved in the informal sector and contribute substantially to their households. In general, women participate more in those industries that can be conducted at home in breaks between household works, and less in those that require them to work outside the home. However, these opportunities are relatively less in urban areas. In Dhaka, a large number of women work in export-oriented garment industries, the main source of the country’s export earnings. Hardcore poor women workers are being found in certain activities traditionally falling within the male domain like earthwork, construction etc. A significant number of women also work as teachers, lawyers, journalists, government employees, and employees in non-government development institutions. In spite of these, the majority of women in Bangladesh have yet to be empowered to participate actively in the social, cultural, economic, and political life of the country. The level of socio-economic empowerment of women is considered as one of the important determinants of women commuting. In Dhaka city, female students and working women are the main travellers. In Dhaka, transport related difficulties of working women are very apparent. The feature is about the commuting behaviour of women in Dhaka with special focus on working women.
Available published documents reveal special features with regard to the socio-economic conditions and commuting behaviours in general. Most gender-based travel behaviour analyses treat men and women as independent trip makers. The evolution of the labour force has brought forth the unique needs, burdens, and patterns associated with women’s travels that are different from men. There are significant differences between the travel behaviour patterns of the two genders. The most pronounced finding is the increase of working women (and in particular, working mothers) in the labour force over the past few decades. One consistent difference has been that women typically have shorter trip durations but make more trips than men. In connection with working men and women, it has been found that men are more likely to use simpler trip patterns than women. Women appear more likely to integrate non-work activities within work trips, including child chauffeuring and other household-serving trips. It is well known that besides working, their daily lives also consist of other activities such as leisure activities, taking children to school, grocery shopping, dentist visits etc. In general, there is a consensus that socioeconomic and spatial structures within the household and in the labour market constrain women more than men, resulting in women generally having shorter commutes than men.
Marital status of women defines their role in the family and thus influences their commuting behaviour. The dual career-home responsibility affects women’s careers much more than men’s and thus also commuting behaviours. Women try select jobs closer to their residence because their household responsibilities shorten commuting distance. Women, especially mothers of small children, regardless of their occupational status, are more likely to work in local labour markets and to commute shorter times compared to men.
Non-motorized transport, and public transports like buses are the main means of transports for most people in the cities of developing countries. However, many of the mass or public transportation systems are inefficient and chaotic. Car ownership is not a realistic option for most people living in the cities of developing countries. When it comes to female vehicle ownership rates, the rates are even lower. This can also be seen in the degree to which women get a driving license. Dependence on walking is very common by women in developing countries. However, women are significantly less likely than men to walk alone and correspondingly reported walking with friends and family much more often than men.
Some unique difficulties are commonly applicable for women commuters. In a number of low-income countries, problems of dirty footpaths crowded with hawkers and harassment by street boys is a great difficulty for the women commuters. With regard to availing public buses, there are health risks associated with waiting for long periods in inclement weather, particularly for older women. Overcrowded public transport involves invasion of personal space, which many find distressing and renders women vulnerable to sexual abuse. Moreover, fear of harassment and attack on the street produces high levels of anxiety among women commuters.
There is a common acceptance that the situation is getting better over time throughout the globe. Over the last two decades, two trends become visible in most global economies: first, there is a change in the status of women, which is most clearly manifested in their participation in the labour force; and second, women’s travel patterns are changing rapidly. However, alongside increasingly becoming wage earners, women continue to perform more housework and childcare activities than men do.
In Bangladesh, most women have limited role in household decision-making, limited access and control over household resources, restricted mobility and inadequate knowledge and skills that lead to vulnerability. Traditional, cultural and social values and practices have reinforced the lower status of women as compared to men in Bangladesh. In a family, women generally have primary responsibility for the care and feeding of children. Cooking, cleaning, childcare and nursing activities, and looking after family members occupy the major portion of both working and non-working women’s daily jobs.
The transportation system of Dhaka is predominantly road based and non-motorized transportation has a substantial share. Rickshaws (a type of tri-cycle peddled by human) and buses are the dominating mode of public transport. The number of passengers in public transport has been increasing continuously over last two decades. The road network of the Dhaka City is non-lane basis and all transport modes (motorized and non-motorized) use same lane. Buses are the cheapest mode available as mass transit among the public transport. Other than buses, taxi, auto-tempo, auto rickshaw (baby taxi commonly called CNG) are available but relatively expensive small passenger transport modes. A considerable number of people in Dhaka city rely on non-motorized modes and walking.
In Dhaka city, buses are operated both by private and public operators; however the private sector is dominating. Services of most buses are inefficient and unsafe. Long waiting, overloading, discomfort, and long walking distance from the residence/work place to bus stoppages are some of the obvious problems that confront the users of buses in their daily lives. In peak hours they very often load and unload at unspecified stoppages. It is a common practice in rush hours to deny access to the old, women, and children passengers, because this group has a tendency to avoid fighting during boarding and alighting. The city road networks are designed for a smaller population, and do not have the capacity to handle the current increasing number of travellers and vehicles. This leads to overloading and over speeding thus increases risk of accidents.
Use of the transportation system by men and women varies considerably in Bangladesh. Public transport is not always comfortable to the women of Dhaka city. Especially, middle and upper income class women are not at all comfortable in using public buses. In Dhaka, women’s exclusion from public transport is due to overcrowded buses. A considerable number of low income employed women walk to and from work. For example, women garment workers account for a considerable proportion of the female labour force in Dhaka and most of these women walk to and from work.
Difficulties of women commuters are well known and distinct in Dhaka city. Sometimes, women face discourteous treatment and harassment on crowded public modes of transportation, such as buses. This further reinforces women’s preference to use rickshaws. This, however, entails greater cost and is not affordable for very poor women. In this connection the government’s initiatives for banning rickshaws from different streets of Dhaka has been affecting transport choice accessible to most women and thus their mobility.
Incidences of violence against women and sexual harassment are among the challenges to the female commuters of Bangladesh especially in urban areas. Girls on their way to school and women to office and factory fall easy victims to teasing and harassment. The majority of the mugging victims are working women. Pedestrians and women travelling on rickshaws face mugging. Women, more than men, are afraid to travel after dark. As the garment workers return home late, they are forced to walk in groups that provide personal security.
Average women of Bangladesh are gradually overcoming social, cultural and corporate barriers and acquiring important positions in all economic sectors. Over the years, the women’s labour force participation rate in urban areas increased, life expectancy at birth improved, and maternal mortality rate decreased. Public awareness efforts by development organizations and mass media have played an important role in this connection. In addition, women-led NGOs have been pushing for change in women’s societal roles through research and advocacy. This has added momentum for development partners to push the government to address critical gender issues. The latest WHO household survey indicates that over the past 20 years the female disadvantage has tended to persist in India and may have worsened in some other countries such as Nepal and Pakistan; however, for Bangladesh the gap has narrowed significantly over time.
The changes in the status of women has been reducing economic and social gap between men and women in Bangladesh. It is expected that the growing number of initiatives to promote women’s empowerment and changing social conditions, coupled with the introduction of innovations in transportation infrastructure will have strong impacts on women’s commuting behaviour in near future.
A gender-aware transport system is the need of the time for Dhaka city that would increase women’s mobility, productivity, and ensure sustainable economic growth. It is important to develop specific policies and transportation planning models that capture gender differences in different modes of transportation. A design of integrated metropolitan transportation long-term plan with a clear vision of proper placing of train, bus and taxis as well as motorcycle and non-motorized transport is needed. Ensuring accessibility is the most crucial factor at this moment that is expected to take care of the time, money and comfort of the women commuters. There should be specific guiding rules to be followed by bus owners, staffs, and commuters and their proper enforcement to ensure safety, security, and convenience of the women commuters on the streets of the Dhaka city. However, awareness development among common people of all groups and gender is the most crucial aspect that can make the progress rapid and smooth. The existing evidences suggest that for sustainable development it is appropriate to address women commuting issues by policymakers and advocacy groups of Bangladesh and other developing countries alongside other major gender sensitive issues.

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