Inclusive transport will be critical to women’s empowerment—and to development as a whole

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Photo: WRI Brasil Cidades Sustentáveis/Flickr
Does separating women on public transport tackle the wider problem of sexual harassment and assault, or does it merely move the problem around? How can governments combat sexual harassment on public transport without segregating transport by gender? Does the employment of women in the sector contribute to designing better solutions to improve women’s personal security in public transport and enhance their mobility? Experts on both sides of the issue debated these and other questions at a recent event on “Women as Transport Users and Transport Services Providers – What Works and What Doesn’t” hosted by the World Bank’s transport team. Data reveals that while a significant share of women all over the world experience sexual harassment on public transport, often in pandemic proportions, the majority of cases goes unreported.
The session was conceived to explore development implications of women-only transport; highlight why laws matter for women in the transport sector; and better prepare World Bank staff to discuss these two topics with their respective clients.
The women-only transport concept regularly catches the media’s attention and has been debated before. Those who favor providing women with the option of gender segregated transport say it provides much-needed safety for women and facilitates their access to income-earning opportunities and various services. Those against segregation say it further reinforces gender inequalities and entrenches sexist attitudes.

“The conversation today is not only about women’s rights. It is not only about enhancing the well-being of women,” explained Karla Gonzalez Carvajal, Practice Manager in the Transport and Digital Development Global Practice at the World Bank, during her introductory remarks. “It is about addressing mobility barriers for half of the world’s population. We need to think holistically in our transport sector projects to tackle both employment and service side barriers in order to deliver safe mobility and inclusive employment opportunities for all in the transport sector.”
Is gender-segregated transport a bad idea…
“Gender segregation in public transport does not address the root causes of gender discrimination and violence. It’s not by any means a solution to the problem of sexual harassment,” said Ximena Andion, Director of Instituto Simone de Beauvoir in Mexico. “ It does not give more rights to women and it doesn’t address the norms and rules.”
“Stop defining all men as predators,” added Marty Langelan (Langelan & Associates). "What a strategic mistake. Many men are allies. Segregated transport is a misplaced investment, a failure of both ethics and economics. Systematic intervention programs are far more effective. Intervention stops harassers on the entire transport system.”
… or a practical necessity?
“A recent International Labor Organization (ILO) study shows that limited access to and safety of transport reduces the probability of women’s labor force participation by 16.5% in developing countries” pointed out Farhad Ahmed, Senior Transport Specialist at the World Bank. “If women are not able to use public transport safely, it could have a long-term impact on transport planning.”
“In some countries, sexual harassment on transport translates into girls missing school, women giving up job offers, or even being unable to access essential healthcare services” added ElsaMarie D’Silva, Founder & CEO of Red Dot Foundation.  
Women, Business and the Law
The second half of the discussion focused on data from the new 2018 World Bank report, “Women, Business and the Law,” which examined restrictions on women’s employment in the transport sector. The data underscored the fact that more than 2.7 billion women globally are legally restricted from having the same choice of jobs as men. 19 economies currently impose restrictions on women’s employment in transport, and 177 economies do not prohibit sexual harassment in public places.
“Everyone agrees on the goal of public transport in which all users – men and women – feel secure. Alternatives for getting to that goal either through fully integrated public transport with enhanced protection for women or by providing women with the option of women-only subway cars have big implications for economies as a whole and for individual beneficiaries” said Franz R. Drees-Gross, Director, Director for Transport & Digital Development at the World Bank, during concluding remarks. “We need to be aware of all the trade-offs so that we can provide customized development solutions to our clients.”
The debate as a whole focused on strategies to reduce violence against women on public transport and increase women’s mobility. The discussion shed light on the complexity of the issue, and suggested several out-of-the box solutions that highlight the need to fully incorporate gender considerations in designing and planning public transport.
While the jury is still out on how exactly to expand women’s access to mobility, employing women in the sector can lead to more inclusive transport infrastructure and service development, which can also influence the debate over women-only transport by bringing women’s perspectives directly to the decision-making table.

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