Are you a woman living in India? Do you often have to travel from your home to your workplace/college/school or just need to step outside, alone? Do you use public transport as a mode of commute? Then you know how exceedingly tiring and worrisome it is for women in India to commute from one place to the other. How you are constantly thinking, looking over your back for any lurking men, avoiding inappropriate touching, street harassment, groping, molestation, unnecessary staring and stalking.

THE LOSS WOMEN INCUR

What does this lead to? Limited opportunities, opting for expensive private/shared cabs and limited access to cheaper public transport. It adds to a lower percentage of women participating in the workforce, or enrolling in educational  programs away from home because let’s accept it safety is a huge concern. Women would rather stay at home or join a neighbourhood workplace then go far and deal with constant worry. But then there are also some women who do venture out, putting their safety in danger on an everyday basis.

SOME TAKEAWAYS

  • Limited opportunities, opting for expensive private/shared cabs and limited access to cheaper public transport.
  •  Safety is important in making women and girls access public spaces confidently.
  •  While women and young girls comprise close to 50% of the urban population, only 19% of them come under the “other workers” criteria of the census report.
  •  Apart from public transport if a woman has to cover a smaller distance, she ends up walking. Cycling could actually reduce that time.

Safecity founder Elsa Marie D’Silva who has worked extensively in understanding women’s role in public spheres told SheThePeople.TV, “Safety is important in making women and girls access public spaces confidently. Often, the harassment is normalised, but its impact leads women and girls to modify their behaviours and movement, restrict mobility and affects self-confidence. Over a period of time, this can impact in many other ways – choice of career, less financial independence because one compromises on jobs, etc.”

“As a woman you, end up taking more expensive means of transport and if you are on an outstation duty, you might stay closer to the conference/work venue which might be a more expensive option,” she added.

STATS SHOW THE TRUTH

The Census data for 2011 of ‘Other workers distance from residence to place of work and mode of travel to place of work’ shows that across the country, the working women travelling from their homes to their work is 4.37 crore while the same data for men comes up to be 15.66 crore. While there is and has always been a huge distinction between men and women joining the workforce, what blew up the safety concern in transportation is the December 2012 gang rape of Jyoti Singh in Delhi’s Vasant Kunj area. It caused a huge outcry not just nationally but also internationally about safety during commuting in India.

After the incident, the Indian government and the private sector together came up with women-friendly initiatives like panic buttons, women’s only buses, autos, etc. However, we have not even come close to eradicating safety woes from the Indian public transportation system as we speak of it in the urban sphere while rural suffers from having a reliable network of public transport system itself.

While women and young girls comprise close to 50% of the urban population, only 19% of them come under the “other workers” criteria of the census report. Yet, 84% of their trips constitute of public, intermediate public and non-motorized public transport, said a study by the Institute of Transportation and Development Policy.

Indian women commute
Women’s Safety in India
Picture By: Rediff.com

DIFFERENCE BETWEEN HOW MEN AND WOMEN TRAVEL

“Women limit the colleges they could attend primarily because of safety issues. So they won’t have to venture beyond a certain distance and in that sense, women have to constantly strategize in terms of how they can safely move around the city and also rely on their family members to reach their destination safely. However, men take the more direct and cheaper mode of shared public transport to get from one place to the other. Women have to bear the additional burden of worrying about sexual harassment in order to find a route that is safer than others and incur more cost. In many other cases, they may limit their opportunities by not travelling far so as to stay in close proximity to their neighbourhood,” said Urban Planning expert Sonal Shah drawing a comparison between how differently women and men travel that impacts their expenditure and mental state.

Safetipin founder Kalpana Vishwanath also added to the distinction and said, “It is this sense that women can never really relax to go about their day and I don’t think men have any understanding of the way women live their lives.”

Talking about how women and men navigate commute, Shah said, “A few years ago, I was part of a research to see how working women and men move around their offices and one of the interesting findings was that in the evening certain women ended up taking longer paths from the office to another place because along the way there was a Paan shop where a group of men would stand. And because they did not feel comfortable, they did not take the shortest route but a longer and a safer route.”

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TIME OF THE DAY MATTERS

However, the hour of the day or night also matters acutely in case of women’s travel. There are a great number of people, influencers who would discourage women to be out in the night even if that is for work. Families are generally a part of the discouraging group. “This further impacts the perception of safety as you wonder if men will come to your aid if something goes wrong. However, that does not mean that during the day, there is absolute safety and no sexual harassment. Our data shows women reporting being harassed during morning, afternoon and evening hours.

Based on the location and kind of community, it is around travel times to/from work or college. Clearly, during the day, with more people around, there is comfort in the fact that people might come to your aid. Night times mean you might choose private transport like Uber or Ola instead of public transport. Again, a city like Mumbai has plenty of options and is quite busy for many hours of the day as well as the night but a city like Delhi might have fewer women out at night and last mile connectivity from metro stations continue to be an issue,” said D’Silva on how safety concerns dip and rise with the sun.

Vishwanath added, “In late hours the prices of cabs also shoot up and for young women, they aren’t earning that much and if half their salary goes into transport, then it becomes a problem. Then the families also start showing concern and continue working is not easy. So if we have such extra worries for women, we know that why female workforce participation in India is going down.”

CYCLING – A GOOD SOLUTION TO SHORT DISTANCE

While the situation of travelling for women is pathetic, there a few changes and initiatives that the government can take up to ensure a better experience to women. One of the most under-explored modes of transport, suggests Shah, is cycling. “Apart from public transport if a woman has to cover a smaller distance, she ends up walking. Cycling could actually reduce that time. And it can work for all classes of the society. What it will require in the Indian context is safe cycling infrastructure, which is well-designed and shaded. It will also have to make sure that women don’t face any harassment—some mechanism which has a complaint reporting system—so women feel safe.”

Indian women commute
Cycling is underexplored among women in India

She quoted an example of an initiative taken by the Bihar government in 2006. Under this scheme, the government gave money to every 14-year-old school girl who enrolled in state government schools to buy a bicycle. It led to a 30 per cent increase in school enrollment of girls. This initiative demonstrates that safe mobility is a necessary condition for girls to continue their education, especially in rural areas of the country.

In some of our bigger cities, while overall cycling mode shares are low, women’s cycling mode shares are particularly so. According to the Census of India (2011), only 2.5 per cent of women cycled to work compared to 6 per cent of men. In cities like Chennai, Kolkata and Delhi, women’s cycling mode shares ranged from 2-4 per cent, whereas men’s mode share ranged from 11-14 per cent. We have not sufficiently explored the role of cycling for women’s mobility. It has the potential to expand their boundaries for spatial mobility. Women can cover a distance of 2-6 km on a bicycle, which could take about 10-30 minutes, Shah added.

MEASURES TO IMPROVE TRAVEL EXPERIENCE FOR WOMEN

She also recommends first and last mile connectivity. “Women depend on buses and metro for transportation but first and last mile connectivity is a very big issue across cities where you build the mass rapid transit system. The access from home to the bus stop etc. is where we need major improvement.”

Based on the location and kind of community, it is around travel times to/from work or college. Clearly, during the day, with more people around, there is comfort in the fact that people might come to your aid. Night times mean you might choose private transport like Uber or Ola instead of public transport. – Elsa D’Silva

For the public transport system, D’Silva says, “Transport should be safe, inclusive, convenient, frequent and cheap. The helplines and support systems like Railway police must be responsive and the same must have clear signage so there is no doubt where to access this help. We need greater awareness about what constitutes sexual violence and the punishment for violations. We need to ensure that at the law-enforcement level, authorities believe survivors. Also, we need to create a culture of respect where personal spaces are not violated and everyone feels safe.”

While it is important to ensure better transport system, there is also a requirement for road safety so women can walk on roads safely. Vishwanath suggested well-lit roads, street vendors, eyes on the roads to ensure there are bystanders who can help women in need.

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