Redesigning public transport in Kenya with women in mind

All over the world, women experience an astounding number of sexual harassment on public transport. In Kenya, this problem affects 88 percent of women. What if we could redesign public transport systems to fundamentally improve the safety of women and other vulnerable groups? Social entrepreneur Naomi Mwaura answers this question with the help of the FLONE Initiative, an organization she founded in 2013. Josephine Nzerem from Ashoka caught up with Naomi. They talked about her deep love and appreciation for “matatus” – Kenyan minibuses – and how she is transforming the entire industry from the ground up by putting more women in management positions.

Josephine Nzerem: For those unfamiliar with Kenya’s transportation system, could you explain how matatus work?

Naomi Mwaura: In Kenya, we do not have government operated transport. Any private citizen with the appropriate licenses can buy and operate a bus, a matatu. Persons operating the vehicle, such as the driver and conductor, are paid informally. There is no contract or minimum wage. This type of employment is crucial as Kenya has a high rate of youth unemployment. Public transportation is the only place a young person can go without having to change clothes, without having to speak English, and still manage to come home with $5.

Zero: When did you decide that public transport in Kenya needed reform?

Mwaura: Growing up, my family ran matatu in my hometown. It was very colorfully painted and very popular. It allowed me to appreciate the ability of public transport to create jobs for the whole extended family, while providing freedom of movement.

But while at university, I had a horrific experience of being assaulted on a bus, which made me reflect on the general state of public transport in Kenya. I was shocked into action when two years later I saw a viral video of a woman being physically assaulted on a bus. Together with my friends from college, we decided to organize a protest to draw attention to the issue of women’s safety. Only four of us showed up and it turned out that we had more media than protesters. Luckily my lawyer friend had the brilliant idea to turn it into a press conference and the Flone Initiative Trust was born.

Zero: You’ve come a long way since then. What was the first gap you started filling?

Mwaura: One of the things we struggled with in the beginning was the lack of data. As women, we used public transport, but we couldn’t find any data to back up our negative experiences. That’s why action research and knowledge generation are at the heart of everything we do. We started tracking incidents, which allowed us to make specific recommendations for the matatu industry. For example, we learned that they could make their bus routes safer for women simply by having predictable routes and timetables. There is currently an ongoing discussion on gender and mobility in Kenya and East Africa. There has also been a renewed interest in looking at the travel needs of other vulnerable groups, such as people with disabilities or the elderly. We currently work with over 3,000 matatu operators, over 100 transport stakeholders (including government agencies and trade unions) and over 1,000 women professionals to implement our interventions.

Zero: How did Flone bring this conversation into the mainstream?

Mwaura: A turning point in our work came when we co-organised the #MyDressMyChoice protest in response to three viral videos of women being assaulted and undressed in bus stations. It was the first time people came to me and said, “Now I understand what you’re talking about. I didn’t think it was that bad…” Our actions led to a reform of the law, according to which undressing women is punishable by up to 10 years – a crime specific to the public transport industry.

Zero: How do you engage women? What role do they play in shaping the transport industry?

Mwaura: Depending on who you ask, it is estimated that women working in public transport make up only about seven percent of the workforce. Our Women in Transport program is designed to attract, retain and advance women professionals in the industry. We conduct professional development training, such as driving license courses or financial management courses. This way, female drivers can get the financial muscle they need to advance in the industry. That’s why we need to invest in women across the value chain. Let’s make sure that more and more of them become producers, editors, designers and engineers.

Zero: As more and more women enter the transport industry, what changes? Something particularly surprising?

Mwaura: Interestingly, other vulnerable groups feel more comfortable when women are in charge. Our research shows that people with disabilities prefer vehicles driven by a conductor. They say women tend to take better care of their access aids, such as canes and wheelchairs. And other women are more likely to entrust their children to women, especially school-age children. Other women are also joining the industry after our members on National TV talk about their careers.

Zero: What are you aiming for today?

Mwaura: We are building an inclusive mobility movement in Kenya where we are breaking down silos and providing support to three main stakeholders: practitioners, commuters and government officials. We can’t solve the whole problem alone – we need everyone. For example, last year we worked with Machakos County officials. They independently conducted a security audit of the transport infrastructure in their city, and we helped them create a toolkit. By building government capacity in this way, we hope to get to the point where public transport is regulated and managed by the government.

We also put a lot of emphasis on behavioral change, as some of the problems we face in public transport are cultural and social. We need to get to the point where people regulate themselves. Unfortunately, that takes a bit more time. We achieve this through awareness campaigns, engaging religious and cultural leaders, and building capacity in the industry, especially in informal transport where there is no standard training.

Zero: What excites you about the future of transportation in Kenya?

MwauraA: I keep thinking that until the 1990s in Kenya, women couldn’t open a bank account without their husband’s or family’s permission. When someone told me this, it struck me as completely absurd. So I hope future commuters will look back and say, ‘Hey, there was a time when public transport wasn’t the best way for women to travel; isn’t that absurd? I see a future where public transport is safe, accessible and a great place to work for Kenyans.

Follow Naomi Mwaura on Twitter.

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