Women and girls bear brunt of Africa’s ‘transport poverty’

KIM HARRISBERG
Long queues in the rain, daily four-hour trips in a public taxi, the constant threat of road accidents, and nearly having to use a pen as a knife to fight off an aggressive male passenger.
These are just some of the challenges Busisiwe Nongauza has faced while commuting to and from her job as an insurance underwriter in Johannesburg, South Africa’s biggest city.
Nongauza, who lives in Soweto, the country’s biggest township, is not alone in her experience.
A new study shows that in Sub-Saharan Africa “transport poverty” — when inaccessible or unsuitable transport negatively impacts a person’s quality of life — disproportionately affects women and girls in terms of harassment, getting to school and accessing jobs.
“Public transport is not safe for women at all. We are powerless,” Nongauza, 48, said.
Transport poverty in Africa is linked to unplanned, informally developed urban areas that place vulnerable groups on city peripheries, according to a November report by the Volvo Research and Educational Foundations (VREF), a research financing group.
As a result, people who have to travel to the inner city for work can face long, pricey and often dangerous journeys, especially women travelling alone at night.
“This report comes at a critical juncture in African urban transport development as the continent emerges from the COVID-19 crisis,” said Gina Porter, a senior researcher at Durham University in Britain and one of the study’s main authors.
“It brings together, for the first time, knowledge about transport users’ needs and practices in African cities, with a particular focus on vulnerable groups,” she said in e-mailed comments.
According to the report, 70 per cent of Africa’s urban population live in informal settlements.
The authors point to the transport challenges faced by women living in these settlements in dozens of African cities, including Tunis, Abuja and Cape Town.
A lack of safe transportation to and from work is linked with almost 16 per cent lower labour force participation for women in developing countries, according to the United Nations’ International Labour Organization (ILO).
Transport poverty also impacts girls’ education, the VREF report says.
“Girls face major impediments to travel, like harassment and family constraints related to the travel risks they are perceived to face,” said Porter.
“Pubescent girls’ reduced access to secondary education… clearly impacts massively on their potential
opportunities in the jobs market throughout their lives.”
Just over a quarter of South African women feel safe walking at night, according to a 2019 index by the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace and Security that measured safety in 167 countries.
Nongauza said it is essential she leaves work before dark to avoid any possible danger on the roads. “I know of a woman who was abused by a taxi driver,” she said. “I know we have rights, but it sometimes feels like we don’t.”
The potential consequences of not addressing transport poverty are social exclusion, increased poverty and inequality, said Karen Lucas, a professor of human geography at the University of Manchester, who co-authored the VREF study. This is true not only for women and girls, but also other vulnerable groups such as the elderly, people with disabilities and people who could face danger and discrimination on the roads, the report says.
“I found it alarming that, in most cases, city plans and transport policies totally ignored the mobility and accessibility needs of the many people living in informal and slum settlements,” Lucas said.
The South African transport ministry was not available to comment.
The study calls for governments and the private sector to urgently engage with residents, transport unions and rights groups to better understand the transport needs in their cities.
For example, Lucas noted, authorities need to improve the ease and safety of travelling to, from and within evening markets and introduce measures such as elevated pavements with built-in space for street vending.
“It’s about working together with other sectors such as housing, health, education, community development and welfare to collectively solve the problems of immobility and inaccessibility, not just providing more transport,” she said.
— Thomson Reuters Foundation