Reclaiming public spaces for women
The front page of The Daily Star published a photo that could be a poster for any women's empowerment campaign. In the picture, 15-year-old Ontora, calls passengers to board a Mirpur-bound BRTC bus, her face a perfect picture of strength and resilience. The caption of the photo draws attention to how rare the picture is, stating that many passengers stare at her in disbelief, because she has the courage to do "a man's job."
I wanted to see exactly how rare this scenario is so I googled "female bus helpers in Bangladesh." The first page displays results almost entirely constituting of titles like "Women harassment in public transport", "DU female student harassed by bus helper" and "Woes of women commuters". Ontora will probably never read this or any other article I write in English. So I assume it is difficult for her to even imagine the extent of her courage to have taken up employment in a public transport service in a country where I am afraid to ride buses. I also assume that it's not her concern. She is not trying to inspire anyone. She is just getting by, trying to earn a living in a country where 26 lakh people are jobless.
I am not the only one in the country who doesn't get on a public bus unless it's an emergency. Statistics say that 13 percent women avoid using public transport due to sexual harassment; 48 percent women experience harassment from drivers and helpers. A report by ActionAid Bangladesh stated that the atmosphere in public service-oriented places is far from conducive. Majority of the respondents interviewed for the study acknowledged that buses and bus stands are unsafe for women. Women are sexually harassed and inappropriately touched at bus stands by service providers and the general public. In addition, both men and women face rude behaviour. The report was quoted by a daily newspaper: "City buses are considered so unsafe that even slum women won't use them unless absolutely necessary (in cases where shared CNG or others are unavailable)."
Earlier this year the Thomson Reuters Foundation carried out a survey that stated that Dhaka ranked as the seventh most dangerous megacity for women. Sexual violence and cultural practices along with two other factors contributed to Dhaka's miserable failure. The Safe Cities index also ranked Dhaka as one of the 10 least safe cities for women to live in.
And if we moved beyond statistics and reports to lives, on August 25, five men raped and murdered 27-year-old Zakia Sultana Rupa in a running bus while returning to Mymensingh from Bogra which became national news. Rupa, who completed her Masters from Bogra Azizul Haque College, was studying law at Dhaka Ideal Law College. She was working at Unilever Bangladesh Limited at its Sherpur branch. The bloodstained body of the victim was found on the Tangail-Mymensingh Highway at Modhupur's Panchish Mile area.
Following the case, much discussion, at least in my circles, centred on how "Bangladesh is becoming like India" citing the much-discussed Delhi gang-rape to point out Delhi's low standards in ensuring safety on public transports. In addition, a number of informal reports emerged on social media where people reported in either witnessing or being victim to harassment on public transport. However, the fact of the matter is, safety on public transport has not been guaranteed for women in Dhaka for as long as I can remember. Women who board public transportation do so braving many risks. We develop a thicker skin, accept the risks as part of our lives and we move on.
There is also a silence around reporting sexual assault and harassment because it is traumatic to speak about. Having your body violated will leave marks on your psyche that takes forever to heal. There is also a stigma associated with speaking about any kind of assault. Having to prove that something like this has happened to me is difficult. But when we do speak up the general response to women facing unsafe situation on public transport is asking them not to avail these services. However, by asking women to give up their spaces in public domains, we are essentially telling them, "You don't belong here" and consequently "Public spaces are men's spaces." So what's the solution?
I am wondering if taking some really small steps can significantly help reduce this predicament. In a report titled "Freedom to Move" published by ActionAid under their Safe Cities for Women campaign, the organisation proposed four keys to gender responsive transport. Firstly, they suggest that the state should play a bigger role in regulating, subsidising and even providing public services in order to make it available, accessible and safe for women and girls. Secondly, women must be included in the physical planning and design of cities and public transport systems, ensuring gender-responsive safety designs, ticketing systems or route selection and the implementation of specific gender policies for urban public transport, making them participatory. Thirdly, governments should make public transport providers and their staff live up to agreed standards, and give sanctions resulting from their performance. And lastly the transportation must be effectively managed. The report proposes a multi-sectoral approach to ensure women's right to freedom of movement within the city, grounded in efforts that prevent violence against women and girls. Steps include challenging patriarchal norms and gender discrimination through the education system; ensuring equal educational and employment opportunities for women and girls; and increasing women's political participation and decision-making power.
I understand. None of it sounds like small steps or simple solutions. While these are great and necessary recommendations, to the average person they may sound complicated. So, I am wondering if we can start with a simple step of encouraging more female staff on buses. Female bus drivers, helpers, conductors and assistants might significantly reduce harassment on public transport, making them more women-friendly. This will solve multiple problems at a time, starting with ensuring a more conducive environment for women commuters, encouraging more women to use public transport. As a spill-over effect, if public transports were more user-friendly, traffic would be reduced on the streets improving the quality of life in the city in general.
It is time to reclaim public spaces for women. It is time to assert that spaces belong as much to women as to anyone else. And in doing so, we honour trailblazers like Ontora, braving many storms in a man's world.
Shagufe Hossain is the founder of Leaping Boundaries and a member of the editorial team at The Daily Star.