For girls just outside New Delhi, India, the danger of traveling to school sometimes stands in the way of receiving an education. Bus rides are fraught with the possibility of harassment or even rape.
Young women in Mexico City who commute on the metro also confront jeers and sometimes prying fingers as they try to reach their jobs.
Across the developing world, a growing number of cities are turning to women-and girl-only transportation options to help address this problem, and prevent women from enduring abuse or harassment from men as they travel to work or school.
While segregated buses and trains may not address the underlying problem — that women are made to feel unsafe in the first place — the women who use them say they provide a ticket to an education, a way to enter the job market, a lifeline to participation in an economy from which they have so long been ostracized.
Although children in India have a legal right to go to school, fewer than 10 percent of girls in Mewat, an area not far from New Delhi, are literate, according to the nonprofit Lotus Outreach.
A dearth of secondary schools, combined with a conservative Muslim population that resists allowing girls to travel far afield on their own, means families are more likely to marry their young daughters into the care of older men to ensure their future security than send them to high school. It’s not that their families don’t want their daughters to learn to read, Lotus Outreach spokeswoman Michaela Haas said. They are afraid of what could happen if they let their girls venture onto city buses and busy streets in the process.
Boys are typically allowed to walk or ride bikes to school, Haas said. But it's not always safe for girls to venture into public on their own, and their fathers, who tend to make the decisions, don’t permit it.
So five years ago, Lotus Outreach started the Blossom Bus, which is strictly for girls trying to get to school.
“It’s part of a larger effort to get more girls to school in India,” Haas said, “Every child has the right to go to school, but practically, it’s not always happening.”
Single-gender buses seemed a practical, relatively inexpensive solution. Just $1,800 will transport a bus of 12 girls to and from school for an entire academic year.
In 2008, the project served around 35 students. Now, more than 100 girls take the buses to schools and, according to Haas, literacy rates have actually increased from less than five percent a handful of years ago to closer to 10 percent. It’s difficult to attribute that entirely to the buses, but Haas is certain they’ve played a role.
According to Haas, even conservative religious leaders have warmed to the idea.
“The heads of mosques were initially skeptical, but they’ve come on board,” she said. “Every morning, several imams read over the loudspeaker that education is key and ask children to go to school…Right now with Malala, there’s so much talk about girls going to school in Muslim societies. They want it, but are very concerned about their safety and transportation is a huge issue.”
A refuge in Mexico City
What happens when those girls finish school and find jobs that require a bus ride into town? This is a question that Mexican cities, like Tijuana and Mexico City, are beginning to address. Since more women joined the workforce in the mid-1990s, cities have had to contend with more sexual assault and harassment complaints.
Women report being groped and sexually assaulted when they take public transportation in urban centers. In the past several years, cities like Tijuana and Mexico City have introduced women-only buses and segmented trains as a solution.
Haas isn’t surprised that female-only transit options are expanding. It’s cheap, she said, and effective.
Mexico City-native Alex Ruiz Euler, a political science Ph.D. candidate at UC San Diego and a scholar at the university’s Center for U.S.-Mexican Studies, agrees.
Partitioned options, where the front of the bus or a special car on a metro train is reserved for women, started about seven years ago in Mexico City, he said, as a cheap way to deal with violence. There are also buses just for women.
Ruiz’s friend Susana Pérez told Fusion in an email that she likes the idea, but that in practice, there’s some work to be done. There are very few buses for women only, she said, meaning many are forced to contend with Mexico City’s general transit system.
But according to both Ruiz and Duncan Wood, director of the Wilson Center’s Mexico Institute, there have been broad attempts recently to modify Mexico City’s public transit options in the last 10 years, including offering women-only options. The effort picked up, Wood said, when López Obrador of the left-leaning Democratic Revolution Party (PRD) took office in 2000.
The rise of women-only transportation
Tijuana jumped on the bandwagon earlier this year when two private companies began offering segregated bus rides. As an August San Diego Union-Tribune article noted, the idea has caught on in recent years in countries like Pakistan, Guatemala and Japan. There are also programs similar to the Blossom Bus elsewhere in India.
“Worldwide, I think it’s a recent phenomenon,” Ruiz said, adding that he thinks women-only transit options will continue to expand because they are cheap solutions to things like harassment. “The female friends I’ve talked to love it because they don’t feel harassed. It’s like when they go to a male gay bar and feel liberated because they don’t have guys on top of them.”
But both Ruiz and Wood agree expansion will be at the city level because it’s not a high-profile issue at the federal level.
That’s not to say that there hasn’t been progress as the country has democratized.
Discriminatory hiring practices have declined, Wood said, and there’s talk of trying to increase the number of women in high-level government roles. Improving transportation options is just one aspect of that.
“In Mexico City and open centers, we’ve seen people’s attitudes changing as result of global society,” Wood said, “so there’s a growing awareness of gender equality issues and of basic civil rights.”
Just a bandaid?
To continue evolving, developing nations must educate girls and provide openings for women to enter the workforce. A growing awareness that women face harassment as they pursue those goals is a sign of progress, and the fact that the single-gender buses exist indicates people know it’s a problem that needs to be addressed.
But shouldn’t we be addressing the root of the issue, that women feel unsafe because men find it acceptable to harass them, to begin with?
“It’s a short-term response to a problem that is real and exists,” Ruiz said. “However, by segmenting the population along gender lines in public, it’s reinforcing the same conditions of gender separation that gave rise to the problem in the first place.”
That doesn’t mean the buses are a bad thing or shouldn’t expand, but cities need to do more to empower women and increase awareness, he said.
“I don’t know how to solve it,” Ruiz said, “but there needs to be a more global or comprehensive understanding of the problem.”
But change is slow, and while it’s happening, women and girls from India to Mexico welcome the respite segregated buses offer.
Emily DeRuy is a Washington, D.C.-based associate editor, covering education, reproductive rights, and inequality. A San Francisco native, she enjoys Giants baseball and misses Philz terribly.