Ensure Empathetic Understanding of Women’s Safety for Gender-Responsive Public Transport Futures

by Dr. Swati Kumari

In the last post of our dossier on Building Feminist Cities, Swati Kumari from the Edinburgh Earth Initiative shares her research that complicates ideas of safety. Adopting an intersectional approach to safety, she argues, helps us see it as more than protection from sexual harassment alone.

Image: Traffic in New Delhi.

The threat to women’s safety in public transportation is a global problem. It is well established that due to social biases and gender roles, women are more dependent on public transportation for everyday functions. However, unsafe commuting experiences have cumulative negative impacts on women’s access to education, employment and skill opportunities, health facilities and recreational activities. Often women pay extra to hire cabs instead of using public transportation which is not only an economic burden on them but also environmentally unsustainable. This problem is even more amplified in cities in the Global South including urban centres in India. Surveys and reports from Indian cities show a negative perception of public transportation in terms of safety among women commuters. In the past decade, the Indian government has taken cognisance of everyday dangers that women face and initiated actions to improve safety in public transport. But these actions have failed to yield desirable effects and improve perceptions of public transportation.

My five-year-long research on road public transport in India’s capital, New Delhi, shows that the most significant reason for the failed actions is the lack of ‘empathetic understanding’ of women’s safety among policymakers. Often the voices of everyday women commuters are missing from the safety discourses and narratives and as a result the actions and measures remain cosmetic in nature. Thus, it is logical to ask, is safety only a physical concept only limited to sexual harassment? Is safety a uniform situation in which women are a monolithic category? Finding answers to these questions is critical before devising policies and action plans.

It is conveniently assumed in most policy briefs that women commuters are a ‘monolithic’ group with a uniform need for safety. Further, women’s safety is oversimplified and understood as safety from sexual harassment on the buses. Opposed to these assumptions my research revealed that an intersectional lens allows us to analyse how age, income, education and reproductive cycle stage all strongly influence women’s experiences of feeling safe or unsafe in public transportation. Conventional metrics of safety often entirely miss out on the role of pregnancy, menstruation, lactation, and menopause in shaping how people approach safety. My doctoral research conducted a survey in different parts of Delhi including Connaught Place, Munirka, Badarpur, Shahdara and Mukarba Chowk. It showed a strong correlation between physical location and women’s sense of safety while using public buses. For instance, women in the central part of the city feel safer as compared to the women in the peripheral parts, especially during the early morning and late at night. Similarly, the perception and need for safety in buses also change with time, such as early morning and late night. At times different groups of women have conflicting expectations for safety. For example, it was found that women over 60 years old are more receptive to surveillance on buses, but younger and high-educated women consider surveillance a tool of ‘control’ rather than one providing safety. In order to make a meaningful positive impact at the  policy level, there is a need to take these complexities into account.

Women commuters using buses, especially during early morning and late-night hours in Delhi, are mostly from lower income-earning groups and have limited access to technology such as smartphones with data. For instance, sanitation workers and domestic workers need to use public buses in the early morning, but this feels unsafe to them during winter months with foggy mornings. Thus, individual mobile application-based solutions cannot be of much use. Until a broad-ranging and intersectional approach to the question of safety measures for women are embedded in the design and eco-system of public transportation, it is difficult to make any real impact. The first step in this direction is to include the voices of women commuters during the planning phase of public transportation without which any safety measures stay meaningless to women commuters.

Author Bio

Dr. Swati Kumari is a research fellow at the Institute for Advanced Studies on Science, Technology, and Society (IAS-STS) at the Technical University of Graz, Austria where she is examining the interconnections between science, technology, and society in the context of the transport sector. Swati is a PhD graduate from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. In her PhD, she examined the role of responsible innovations for the future of women’s safety in public transportation and has developed and published context-specific methods for ensuring the social sustainability of the transitions in the transport sector for meaningful multiple-stakeholder engagement. She is a recipient of many fellowships including the prestigious STEPS fellowship from the Institute of Development Studies (IDS), United Kingdom and the Technology & Ethics fellowship by Lucerne University, the IAS-STS Fellowship by TU Graz and the Commonwealth Professional Fellowship at the University of Edinburgh. Swati is keenly interested in building a network of academicians, policymakers, innovators & firms in the domain of futuristic transportation technologies. Her key research interests include ethics and social sustainability of future urban transportation systems, safety, security & equity in transportation, Responsible Innovations, and policies on E-Automobility.

Image credit: Mariano Capogrossi, CC-by-SA 2.0