On Wednesday, the Frere Hall lawns in Karachi gladly hosted the inauguration ceremony of the Sindh Mass Transit Authority’s Pink People’s Bus Service (Feb. 1). Provincial Minister for Transport Sharjeel Inam Memon stated that a pink bus would run every 20 minutes during office commute hours in the morning and evening and once every hour during the day. Sharjeel stated that buses should run on Karachi routes 4, 5, 6, and 7 as soon as possible so that more citizens have access to modern public transportation.
The service is a positive step that will assist women in entering the labour force and becoming financially independent. According to World Bank data released in 2019, women’s labor-force participation in Pakistan is currently the lowest in the world, at 23 percent. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Karachi’s public transportation system is in disarray.
This, combined with the inevitable harassment women face when out in public, has led many women to either stay at home and look for remote working opportunities or spend a significant portion of their salaries commuting. Students will be unable to enrol in good educational institutions throughout the city if public transportation is unsafe.
Given the circumstances, it is encouraging to see the Sindh government working to create a safe transportation system for women. For the time being, the recently launched women-only bus service will operate on a single route. Officials have revealed that the ‘pink’ buses will be outfitted with cameras to monitor all activities and ensure the safety of women. One notable feature of the buses is the presence of female conductors, who will play an important role in ensuring the buses’ safety.
While the pink buses are a timely intervention, one has to wonder if we will always require such segregated initiatives or if our governments will work to ensure that the public sphere becomes safe enough for women to not require such assistance.
Sexual harassment on public transportation is a serious problem, but authorities have taken no meaningful steps to address it. Women will have some level of security and safety with a government-backed bus service. In the past, we have seen men harass and film women riding in motorcycle-rickshaws, rickshaws, and motorcycles. A dedicated bus service will allow women to travel without having to worry about it all the time.
However, the government must recognise that these measures are only temporary stopgaps. We must create an environment in which women can feel safe wherever they go, including bus stops, male-dominated buses, and other public spaces. Women-only sections are a welcome relief, but they cannot shield women from the sexual harassment they face on a daily basis.
There must be initiatives where men and women can freely collaborate without fear. For the time being, however, one hopes that the pink bus route will be expanded so that our girls and women can finally commute without constantly looking over their shoulders.