Women’s Economic Empowerment in South Asia             (Hosted by SAR GIL)

Blog » Stepping Out and Stepping Up: Transport and Women’s Economic Empowerment in South Asia

Stepping Out and Stepping Up: Transport and Women’s Economic Empowerment in South Asia

Created Sep 07 2023, 9:13 AM by Veronica Del Motto
  • Transportation

Transportation systems affect women’s daily lives and likely explain part of the observed gender gaps in economic opportunities in South Asia. The ability to conduct activities outside the family home—such as going to work, to school, or simply to the park—are crucial aspects of social and economic participation. Yet, the benefits of such activities are not equally enjoyed by men and women. Indeed, for many women, stepping out of the house involves significant risks. In this blog, we review the evidence on the link between women’s economic empowerment and transportation by focusing on the four main constraints determining women’s physical mobility: accessibility, reliability, safety, and affordability of transportation.

Women need accessible and reliable means of transportation
Regarding accessibility and reliability, three aspects seem important: distance, travel duration, and road conditions. The state of Bihar in India, where most girls live more than 4 km away from a secondary school, has been a social laboratory for understanding this problem. In a 2017 study, Karthik Muralidharan and Nishith Prakash show that the provision of free bicycles to girls attending secondary school reduced the gender gap in enrollment by 40 percent. Further analysis by Moritz Seebacher shows that the increase in continuing enrollment was more pronounced among girls residing in villages more than 3 km away from the nearest secondary school, which had access to all-weather roads. This suggests that girls’ educational choices, which are closely linked to their economic empowerment later in life, are shaped by the transport system and access to infrastructure from an early age.

Women need safe transportation
Safe transportation pertains to women’s preferences and experiences toward safe-driving, public safety, and sexual harassment. When it comes to road safety, data from the World Health Organization’s 2018 Global Status Report on Road Safety show that road traffic injuries are the leading cause of death for children and young adults aged 5-29 years old with pedestrians being the most vulnerable. Since women are more likely than men to walk to work or school – or to walk their children to school – they are a high-risk group. What's more, since women are more risk averse and often the main caregivers at home, exposure to unsafe roads and awareness of reckless driving while in buses, taxis, or walking on nearby roads may push women to adopt suboptimal coping strategies to avoid unsafe areas and certain modes of transportation. Indeed, a recent study by Erin Kelley and her co-authors shows that Kenyan consumers value safety so much that they are willing to change to bus companies that are safer.

When it comes to sexual harassment, women are victimized at alarming rates in public spaces and while on buses or metros. For instance, data collected by ActionAid show that 86 percent of women in Brazil, 79 percent in India, and 86 percent in Thailand have been subjected to harassment in public during their lifetime. These high rates of victimization have remarkable human development consequences for women and girls. A recent study by Girija Borker shows that female students in Delhi will forgo studying at a higher quality university or college because of safety concerns in public spaces, and instead choose lower-ranked colleges with a safer commute. 

The good news is that there are effective interventions to improve the safety of female commuters. A study in Zambia by Nathan Fiala and his co-authors shows that girls allocated a free bicycle were 22 percent less likely to experience teasing and whistling while commuting to school in comparison to girls without one. In Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, a study by Florence Kondylis and co-authors shows that randomly assigning females to segregated spaces for women on trains lowered their exposure to harassment by 50 percent. From a policy perspective, segregated policies are controversial and have had mixed results in terms of implementation. Yet, as the evidence from Rio de Janeiro and Zambia reveals, women and girls face high economic, physical, and psychological costs while commuting. 

Women need affordable transportation
The cost of transportation is an important factor considered by women and their families when deciding about labor market opportunities and other human capital investments. A study from Lahore, Pakistan, by Erica Field and Kate Vyborny shows that when women are presented with a job advertisement that includes access to transportation, the number of applications doubles. There is no such effect for men. Moreover, the provision of a highly subsidized female-only system of door-to-door transport quadruples the rate of job applications in comparison to women who were not offered this option. Given that women generally earn less than men and are less likely to be employed, it is not surprising that the affordability of transportation is a crucial factor in enhancing women's economic empowerment.

Main takeaway
The existing evidence points to the fact that restrictions to women’s mobility hinder women’s economic empowerment and that such effects are felt since adolescence. Yet, the existing body of evidence and available data is scarce, and there is limited evidence of what policies are most effective in easing women’s mobility constraints. In South Asian countries, as urbanization challenges become more and more salient, testing policies that have the potential to address women’s transportation needs in a sustainable manner within cities and suburban areas can be an important factor in supporting the much-needed increase in female labor participation.