Size Matters: Refitting Systems to Make Them Work for Girls and Women


Sia Nowrojee is the Program Director of the 3D Program for Girls and Women

In a landmark move earlier this year, the Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) hired 163 women bus drivers in Pune District. One critical decision made this possible – the MSRTC refitted the system from one designed for men to one that enables the participation of women.

Prior to the initiative, MSRTC guidelines required a minimum of three years of experience driving heavy motor vehicles and a minimum height requirement of 5 feet 2 inches. After making a commitment to increase the number of women drivers, these guidelines were changed. Women with one year of experience driving a light motor vehicle were selected for training, and the height requirement was dropped to 5 feet. These changes made all the difference, creating new economic and professional opportunities for women drivers and potentially improving safety for girls and women passengers.

In a world designed for men this is nothing short of transformative. Once we move past the ‘Default Male’, the world can literally open up for girls and women. It is even more notable in this case because public transport – a seemingly gender-neutral service - is actually highly gendered. Women are more likely than men to use public transport than men, and their routes are more complicated than the typical round-trip commute of men, as they navigate the multiple and varied tasks that their work – paid and unpaid - requires. Despite this, routes and schedules are often planned around the peak hours of a traditionally male work day. This is not surprising since globally, the transport sector is male dominated, both in management and operations.

A review of the evidence on public safety of girls and women in India by the 3D Program for Girls and Women found that girls and women report high rates of sexual harassment and assault on public transportation and little accountability. To manage and avoid these risks, they make significant compromises, including attending lower quality educational institutions which may be on safer travel routes than more competitive institutions, spending more on education, and extending travel time. Focus group discussions with rural girls and women in Pune District confirmed that girls and women experience harassment and violence and feel unsafe walking to and waiting at bus stops and on buses. Additionally, though subsidized passes are provided to students, State Transport buses are often cancelled, delayed or have inconvenient schedules, leaving girls with no regular and safe way to go to high school and college or return home. Many have to choose their course of study based on available transport, avoiding early morning or late-night classes or labs. Having more women drivers could make all the difference.

By being willing to move the needle just two inches, the MSRTC has demonstrated that change within the transport sector – which is critical for advancing gender equality - is possible. These small changes have the potential to take girls and women far.

Featured photo by Chawla Nishant - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0.

December 2019

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