We're Live Bangla Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Women on the move

The Women on Wheels project, launched by the previous Punjab government, was lauded for improving women’s mobility and addressing serious issues faced by women in urban spaces. But it was discontinued by the current government. Eos looks back at the project’s impact

Sometimes, on a particularly trying day, Raheela Qaiser waits for nightfall, wheels her Honda Dream CD 70 out on to the road and goes for a ride. At this time, she has nowhere she needs to be and no traffic to contend with. So she takes this opportunity to go wherever she pleases. Mostly, she rides around the familiar streets of her neighbourhood in Nawab Town in Lahore for an hour or so before heading back home. That hour makes all the difference in the world. “I feel refreshed,” she says. “For a while, my worries take a backseat.”

Saeeda Gill* would agree.

Six years ago, Saeeda managed to convince her brother to teach her how to ride his motorcycle. She got the hang of it fairly quickly and began taking his bike out whenever she got the chance. She recounts a time, not long after she’d first learnt, when a college friend joked that a woman could never learn to ride a motorcycle properly. “I can ride,” Saeeda had responded, but he refused to believe her until she got on his bike and sped out on to the road. She took a lap around the area, thoroughly enjoying the stunned look on his face.

Soon after, she had an accident and refused to go near a bike again. That is until six months ago, when she took the training offered by the government programme Women on Wheels (WoW) and got the confidence to go back on the road.

It was the same programme that allowed 35-year-old Raheela to buy her motorcycle. WoW offered women both training and subsidised motorcycles. Raheela paid 27,000 rupees for the motorcycle upfront and paid off the rest in monthly instalments that, at around 1,800 rupees per month, were fairly affordable for her.

WoW, the brainchild of the former chief minister’s Strategic Reforms Unit (SRU), promised to aid women in a manner that was both sustainable and guaranteed them the ability to travel independently. Under the current government, however, the programme has been phased out. After the first 700-odd motorbikes were distributed, no more have reached the women they were supposed to benefit. According to Salman Sufi, the former director general of SRU, the money that was initially set aside for the 3,000 subsidised motorcycles is now sitting idly in the Bank of Punjab.

Sufi claims the new government simply didn’t see the point of the project, dismissing it as an ineffective use of resources. Apparently in a meeting in May this year, the Punjab transport department objected to the viability of the project saying the Rs90 million project did not justify its cost and was wasting a lot of money on advertisements in the print and electronic media to create awareness.

A representative of the transport department declined to comment for this story, claiming that such projects did not come under the purview of the department, even though the WoW project was under this very department.

But Sufi believes WoW was a crucial programme and is all set to relaunch it in a private capacity in Karachi and Peshawar. The aim now is to train at least 25,000 women in six months. Sufi feels that launching WoW privately will ensure that the programme runs into less problems because his team will not have to negotiate with any government-imposed restrictions.

How it all began

Sufi and his team were working on the Punjab Protection of Women against Violence Act (officially passed in 2016) when they found that mobility was a key issue for women looking to leave abusive homes. It soon became clear to them that mobility was an issue that many Pakistani women who do not own, or cannot afford, a car face on a regular, if not daily, basis. When it comes to stepping out in public space, be it for work, to study or just to run errands, most women have two choices. The first is to take public transport, which Sufi describes as being “in shambles.” The second is to ask their fathers, brothers or other male members of their family to pick and drop them. “This lack of mobility is an impediment to anything they want to do in their lives,” Sufi says.

With this belief, Sufi and his unit knew that they needed to facilitate women’s mobility. The question they were faced with was how. Cars were clearly too expensive to consider. It didn’t take long before they realised the solution had been right in front of them all along — motorcycles. Motorcycles provide an affordable alterna­tive to cars and so, SRU began to design a programme under which women could get training, acquire their licences and buy subsidised motorcycles.

SRU decided to conduct a test training to see how many women would be interested in their programme. They wondered if they’d get any response at all. After all, seeing a woman riding a motorcycle is rare in Pakistan. SRU put out a small Facebook ad and hoped for the best. Soon enough, over 60 women of all ages showed up, eager to learn how to ride a motorcycle. As of July 2018, only two years after the initial training took place, SRU had trained 4,000 women all over Punjab. In May 2018, SRU organised a rally in which the first 700 women who had applied for subsidised motorcycles were officially handed over the keys to their own bikes.

WoW was widely applauded for its efforts to facilitate women’s mobility, even earning Sufi the Mother Teresa Memorial Award for Social Justice in 2018 in Mumbai. The programme seemed like an undeniable success. Its training aspect had run fairly smoothly and Sufi’s team was confident that they had met the initial aim of WoW — to give women the skills and confidence necessary to ride on main roads.

However, WoW ran into a series of problems in the second phase of the project, which was to provide women with subsidised motorbikes. Fatima Khalid, a former associate at SRU, says the eligibility criteria established by various stakeholders caused a lot of problems because each stakeholder had their own set of demands. “We had the bank [of Punjab], the transport department, as well as Honda. The bank wanted the down payment to be a certain amount and the government wanted the subsidy to only be for low-income groups. Those women who qualified for the subsidy would often be unable to make the down payment for the motorcycle,” she claims.

Shahzeb Naeem, who was also an associate at SRU, says that the application process that was set up for those who wanted to buy a subsidised bike was both inconvenient and tedious. “A lot of documentation was required, ranging from domiciles, CNIC verifications, affidavits and a guardian’s signature. The process was not user-friendly at all.” Despite this, both Naeem and Fatima emphasise that this was a pilot-based project and improvements could definitely have been made had the current government felt this was a programme worth investing in. “In order for the streets to get safer, women have to come out on to the streets,” says Fatima. “If women don’t come out, the streets will not get any safer.”

Back to the Future

In September this year, the Punjab Transport Department announced that it will be launching women-only buses and that efforts will be taken to provide waiting areas, toilets and safe drinking water for female passengers. This was ostensibly as a response to criticism about the abandonment of the WoW project which had focused on women’s mobility. Yet, some are sceptical of these new measures. Fatima points out that this is not the first time women-only buses have been launched in Punjab and that, so far, this has not been a hugely successful venture. According to a 2018 international policy brief, Overcoming Barriers to Women’s Mobility: Improving Women’s Access to Public Transport in Pakistan, women-only buses that ran prior to the change in government operated on limited routes, ran half-empty and did not resolve the problem of women continually feeling unsafe in public spaces.

“Theoretically it is easy to state that public transport is the way to go,” says Fatima, “But at the moment, women are simply not able to access public space because everything is either not accessible or too expensive.” Because of this, giving women free training and a subsidised motorcycle is a low-cost and effective way to facilitate them in accessing public space as they may please without being dependent on anyone. Although the project did not run for very long, Fatima believes we need to see beyond the statistics. “The impact of the project is not in the numbers but in the stories these numbers represent,” she says.

Perhaps the best way to assess the impact of the WoW project is to see what it means to the women who have benefitted from it. After all, when thinking about the programme, the image that instantly comes to one’s mind is not that of the SRU but of the hundreds of female motorcyclists present at the widely publicised May 2018 rally where scores of women rode together. At the time, the amount of support the rally received heralded an exciting new chapter for Pakistani women and their mobility. But, beyond that moment, how has the programme helped those women who now ride on the streets of Lahore every day?

Building sustainable cities

Urban planner, Fizzah Sajjad believes that programmes such as WoW can have immense social benefits. She emphasises that, in order to assess whether subsidy programmes such as WoW are sustainable, there is a need to look beyond economic costs and to focus on the social and economic benefits that are being gained. However, she adds that “the expansion and improvement of our public transport system is critical to facilitate mobility in a sustainable manner.”

Mehrbano Raja, a Lahore-based environmental activist and feminist thinks that WoW was an important initiative but that the programme alone would never be enough in a city that desperately needs public transport to improve so that women can move around in a more sustainable manner.

Raheela, Saeeda and Ujjala say, however, that even if public transport were to improve dramatically over the next few years, they would still continue to ride motorcycles. Raheela says that her bike guarantees her independence and safety in a way that public transport never can. It is worth noting, however, that although women like Raheela regularly bike around the city, this is still not a city they actually feel safe in. Much more work needs to be done in order to make Pakistani cities friendlier towards women. Sajjad says some necessary steps include social campaigns that focus on women’s right to mobility, training of police officers to adequately manage complaints and provision of shade for commuters during the hot climate.

In order for women to truly feel safe in their own cities, there needs to be a public reimagining of what a sustainable and accessible city looks like. A city where women may bike, take the bus or even just walk outside with no fear of what may happen to them. However, the phasing out of the WoW programme and the insufficient work being done to facilitate women’s mobility in general indicates an apathy towards gender inclusive city planning. “Planning in our cities, unfortunately, remains gender-blind,” says Fizzah.

*Name changed to protect privacy