Among these issues, women’s mobility is a major factor that determines how advanced or backward the female population of a society is. According to the World Bank, limited mobility of any community is directly linked to reduced economic opportunity for that particular population.
At least 15 women interviewed for the report, living and working in various areas of Dhaka city, maintained that Dhaka as the capital is still ‘completely discordant’ with what a gender-inclusive city should include. They termed transportation, transit and movement for women in Dhaka as ‘hectic’, ‘difficult’ and ‘adverse and unsafe’. Transportation and security have been the key concerns of women of different ages, professions and social class.
Transportation and movability
While talking to this correspondent, Farhana Juthi said, “These are the common everyday scenarios. The city has more working women now than before. But the authorities have neither increased public transport nor the number of seats for women in public transport. There are only nine reserved seats for women in a bus! How is that viable at all?”
Shahana Akhter also complained, “Buses in the morning do not take mothers with babies. I had to take a rickshaw from Khilgaon. Is it possible to carry two children and a stroller in a rickshaw?”
At least 15 women interviewed for the report, living and working in various areas of Dhaka city, maintained that Dhaka as the capital is still ‘completely discordant’ with what a gender-inclusive city should include
When asked about these problems, Mahfuja Aktar, town planner (current charge) Rajdhani Unnayan Kartripakkha (RAJUK) said, “The major problem is boarding a public bus. If there were an adequate number of buses, women wouldn’t need to shove, push or struggle.”
“There are many women who are not physically strong, who have kids with them or other problems. Reserved seats are necessary for them. A strong woman can travel standing as well, but then again, male passengers may harass her,” she added.
She added, “If the initiatives were taken for passengers to wait in queues, to stop buses from overtaking and competing with each other, and if there were an adequate number of buses, the transportation problem would have been solved.”
Other than using public transport, women who live near their workplace or who are homemakers and have to go to the market or take their kids to school and so on, have pointed out a number of problems regarding free and accessible walkways and public spaces.
Each time I come out with my baby, I bring a male relative with me. It feels as if it’s a crime to come out with an infant. This city is not for us
Sarah Deena, a former Dhaka University student and now a senior communication executive of Priyo Ltd, said, the footpath in Nilkhet is mostly occupied by hawkers and it’s a nightmare to walk along the street.
“The crowds can be easily managed in market areas like Nilkhet or Karwan Bazar by organised shop placement. Since markets are already crowded, the occupied footpaths add more to the sufferings to all, irrespective of sex or age.”
Several women carrying babies complained that most footpaths are not wide enough or are occupied by either hawkers or shops and markets. Pushpita Saha, a mother and a homemaker, speaking at the Old Paltan intersection in the capital city, said, “Look at the chaos here. The footpaths are taken over by hawkers while half of the street is occupied by rickshaws. It’s difficult to cross the road walking, let alone with a baby stroller.”
“Each time I come out with my baby, I bring a male relative with me. It feels as if it’s a crime to come out with an infant. This city is not for us,” she added, visibly angry.
When the mother Shahana Akhter, mentioned earlier, asked why she had not brought a stroller for the baby, she snapped back, “Show me one road or footpath in Dhaka where you can possibly push a stroller without the risk of the baby getting hurt.”
Plans and policies
Asked about enhancing public transport access, broadening footpaths and overall making Dhaka gender inclusive, DNCC chief town planner Maqsud Hashem said, “We have developed many public spaces including accessible footpaths and broad roads. We also took up some projects following the standard design or standard procedure targeting special needs of women, elderly people, children and physically disabled.”
“We also developed 24 parks and public spaces including footpaths in four spots,” he added.
DNCC director general Mizanur Rahman (deputy secretary) (transport), said both the mayors have been working on launching Nagar Paribahan.
Notably, Dhaka Nagar Paribahan was launched from Ghatarchar to Kanchpur with 50 buses on 26 December last year. Dhaka South City Corporation (DSCC) mayor Sheikh Fazle Noor Taposh announced on 7 February that Nagar Paribahan will be launched on three more routes after the 21st meeting of the bus route rationalisation committee.
In reply to whether there is any specific plan for a gender inclusive city, Mizanur Rahman said, “We already worked on it and will work on this in future too”.
He said BRTA regulate these issues related to transport.
The government can take up initiative, even if it incurs loss, to operate few bus services during office hours exclusively for female passengers. Every private bus company can be directed to operate a particular percentage of buses exclusively for women only during peak hours
When asked about whether there is any plan to increase public transport, BRTA director, Sarwar Alam (joint secretary) (enforcement), said, “You should ask this question to our transport minister. Even the BRTA chairman cannot answer this question as it is a decision determined by government policy.”
“It is not that there is no initiative targeting gender or people with special needs in our policy,” he said, acknowledging women’s problems in public transport.
“Male passengers struggle to get on public transport, and it is indeed much more difficult for women. Women with higher incomes can take CNG-run auto rickshaws or taxis to work which is costlier, but what about low-income women?”
Sarwar Alam suggested an increase in the number of dedicated seats and to ensure proper use of these.
“The government can take up initiative, even if it incurs loss, to operate few bus services during office hours exclusively for female passengers. Every private bus company can be directed to operate a particular percentage of buses exclusively for women only during peak hours,” he said.
“As the regulator body, we will take the project up if the government makes a policy to expand the service, discuss with the owner’s association and pressurise them,” he added.
According to the latest data of World Population Review, Dhaka has a population of over 20 million, a significant part of which commutes every day. As per BRTA, the number of registered buses in the city till August 2021 was only 36,978 which is only 2 per cent of the total registered vehicles. Only 849 buses were registered till August in 2021 which was 1792 the previous year, according to the BRTA.
Suraiya Akter (pseudonym) a teacher of Badda Alatunnesa Higher Secondary School said, a couple of years back a man harassed her in a public bus when she was on her way to college.
“I slapped the man hard. But not all the girls are strong like me. There are numerous women who simply bear such misbehaviour,” she said.
Nargis Nahar, the woman working at Sonali Bank said, “I was standing in front of Mausoleum of Three Leaders, waiting for a friend. Two motorbikes suddenly stopped and the riders started catcalling. The street lights were very dim. They were passing obscene comments about my body and attire. The people around did not say anything or protest.”
Asked whether Dhaka is gender blind, the president of Mahila Parishad, Fauzia Moslem, said that they don’t even think about the concept of gender, forget about being blind or biased
Another woman, Sadia Sheikh, who recently completed her Masters from University of Liberal Arts Bangladesh (ULAB) said, “I was on my way home by rickshaw at around 10:00pm. When the rickshaw reached Mohammadpur Town Hall, a middle-aged man abused me, commenting on my body.”
A student of Begum Badrunnessa Government Girls College, who does not want to be named said, “A man was leaning over me and groping me in the bus on my way to college two months ago. When I protested, the assistant and other passengers including the perpetrator started insulting me saying, “If you have any problems, why don’t you travel by private transport?”
According to a study, ‘Safe Road for Women: Reducing Sexual Harassment and Road Crash in Bangladesh’ conducted in 2018 by the development organisation BRAC, 94 per cent women commuting in public transport in Bangladesh have experienced sexual harassment in verbal, physical and other forms.
The World Bank handbook also revealed, “According to the 2015 Violence against Women Survey in Bangladesh, the third most likely location for sexual violence after their place of work and their husbands’ home was vehicles/roads/streets (Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, 2016)”
Professor Ishrat Islam at the Department of Urban and Regional Planning of Bangladesh University of Engineering and Technology (BUET) said, “Our society is shaped by the idea that women will not go out after dark. That very notion prevails in everybody including our policymakers’ mindset. Women are also convinced that there is no security outside.”
“There will be lesser crimes if street lights are properly installed. Authorities must ensure proper security in the public spaces keeping women’s security specifically in mind,” she added, “You might notice girls do not often play in open places like boys. The city’s open spaces, parks and housing should be designed keeping the special needs and security of the girl child in mind. The city corporations and RAJUK can play a bigger role.”
Our policy makers undertake some scattered plans which are not adequate in the first place. There is no proper transport system, public toilets, route planning or daycare centres targeting women’s special needs
Mahfuja Aktar, RAJUK town planner (current charge), said, “The matter of security is more related with implementation than planning which includes installing more street lights, widening footpaths and so on.”
She said, “We can make and approve plans but it is implemented by various departments under the city corporations. This is one of the main problems. In our country planning and implementation are done by different authorities.”
Mahfuja Akhtar also said that street hawkers play a significant role in preventing security risks. She said, “Many suggest removing street hawkers. I differ. For instance, in the cantonment area or in many roads in Banani or Gulshan, the streets are empty, giving the perpetrators opportunity for crimes at night. Hawkers attract crowds which is sometimes good for security. We suggested assigning particular streets for them, instead of removing them completely.
The Vienna model
There are a number of cities being designed now with women in mind or following gender mainstreaming like France, Tunisia, Vienna or Mumbai.
Vienna, the capital city of Austria, has been a pioneer in gender mainstreaming in city organism and architecture. In the 1990s the city authorities asked different men and women how they were using the city such as which routes or what transports they took to commute. They came to a conclusion that men and women have completely different needs. So they designed the city differently, they enlarged the walkways, redesigned the transportation routes, added more public spaces with brighter street lights, more places for breastfeeding and also did some gender budgeting to implement those. Vienna since 90s has conducted more than 60 gender sensitive-pilot projects and assessed another 1000 till date.
‘Gender mainstreaming’ is women and men’s equal share in policy, legislation and resource allocation. It was the UN’s global strategy for gender equality in 1995.
Including women in policy implementation
Asked whether Dhaka is gender blind, the president of Mahila Parishad, Fauzia Moslem, said that they don’t even think about the concept of gender, forget about being blind or biased. “A city must enshrine the idea of gender in its policy,” she said.
“Our policy makers undertake some scattered plans which are not adequate in the first place. There is no proper transport system, public toilets, route planning or daycare centres targeting women’s special needs,” she said.
“We have had talks with city councillors- both elected and female- at different time and exchanged views. We shared those views with local government and municipality as well. For the last two or three terms we presented a charter of demands before the city elections. We believe if the women councillors are assigned with proper guidelines, Dhaka could effectively be made more female friendly.”
*This report was produced as part of a women journalists' mentorship programme organised by DW Akademie