Making the Case for Gender-Responsive Transport Infrastructure

Making the Case for Gender-Responsive Transport Infrastructure

Women arriving at Gbassy market, Liberia. Photo by Paul Starkey.

By Priyanthi Fernando

CSW63 has as its priority theme “social protection systems, access to public services and sustainable infrastructure for gender equality and the empowerment of women and girls”. Within this very broad theme, ‘sustainable infrastructure’, and its impact on gender equality and women’s and girls’ empowerment, is probably the most challenging for women’s rights activists to unpack. Gender stereotypes and historical discriminations in social perceptions and access to education have meant that infrastructure (energy, water and sanitation, and transport) has for the longest time been dominated by men, who were (the majority of) the engineers and economists who designed and implemented infrastructure projects. Women and women’s rights organisations have not engaged in the politics of infrastructure development, even though these developments have a profound influence on the lives of women and involve trillions of dollars of investment, and even though many of the global human rights instruments protecting women’s human rights do talk about infrastructure, whether directly or indirectly.

Graph showing China accounting for largest share of infrastructure spending, with over 14 trillion US dollars, while Africa is at the other end of the scale, with 0.98 trillion US dollars.

Projected infrastructure spending from 2016 to 2030, by region or country (in trillion US dollars). Source: Statista.

Within the infrastructure conversation, I find that the ‘transport’ sector has been the least gender-responsive. There have been gender-related conversations around water and sanitation, probably because the issue has a strong household focus, and in the household space women are least likely to be forgotten! The policy conversation around sustainable energy and gender has been actively pursued by ENERGIA. But the transport sector has been very slow in integrating gender into the policy debate and into infrastructure development programmes and projects. And within the transport sector, the challenges to mobility that rural women face have been even further marginalised. Even the draft agreed conclusions of CSW63 focus on urban transport policies and planning, and ignore what happens in rural transport policy, planning and implementation.

So, much of my discussion here will focus on how transport infrastructure and services can work for women and girls, especially women and girls in rural areas. I will draw from my own experience in the transport sector as the Executive Secretary of the International Forum on Rural Transport and Development (1996-2005), and a more recent consultancy that aimed to bring a gender perspective to the Assam Inland Water Transport and Trade project that the World Bank is supporting in Northeast India. I will also draw extensively from little-known evidence generated by the Gender Mainstreaming Project of DFID’s Research for Community Access Partnership (ReCAP).


International Policy Standards and National Policy Frameworks

Transport is not absent in the international instruments that provide the framework for gender equality and non-discrimination. In the global standard-setting instruments transport is seen very much as an enabling factor for women to achieve equal access to healthcare, education, employment, political participation and other benefits of development. The Beijing Platform for Action (1995) called on governments to provide women with equal access to transportation and recognise the vital role they play in food production (para. 166e) as well as to “ensure that women’s priorities are included in public investment programmes for economic infrastructure, such as […] transport and road construction; promote greater involvement of women beneficiaries at the project planning and implementation stages to ensure access to jobs and contracts”. CEDAW, in Article 14, refers to transport as being important in eliminating discrimination against rural women, and ensuring that they “enjoy adequate living conditions, particularly in relation to housing, sanitation, electricity and water supply, transport and communications”. CEDAW’s General Recommendation 34 (GR34) on rural women highlights the importance of transport for rural women to be able to enjoy their different rights, including the right to education, health, livelihood opportunities and political participation. In a special section devoted to transport, GR34 calls on state parties to: “analyse the sex-differentiated demands for transport services in rural areas, ensure that transportation sector policies and programmes reflect the mobility needs of rural women and provide them with safe, affordable and accessible means of transport”.

Many countries have responded, particularly in the last two decades, to pressure from the women’s movements for the incorporation of international gender equality standards into national policy and legal frameworks, and have enacted anti-discrimination laws and equal opportunity legislation, and set up agencies and institutional mechanisms to ensure that these standards are enforced. Women’s ministries, national human rights institutions, and gender focal points or units in line ministries, departments and agencies now exist in most countries around the world.

The ReCAP cluster of research on gender mainstreaming also indicates that gender equality has been incorporated into the transport sector policies in several of the countries where the research took place[1]. Ghana, Kenya, Tanzania, and Uganda have transport policies that spell out the importance of integrating women’s access and mobility concerns into transport infrastructure development strategies, including their planning, design and implementation, and of providing equal opportunities of employment for women and men in the sector. Tanzania and Uganda also have national construction industry policies that require the construction industry to have gender-responsive practices in recruitment, training and procurement. Tanzania’s National Transport Policy (draft, 2011) is probably the most progressive, in that it plans to put in place legal instruments and institute a gender-sensitive monitoring of ministries, public sector entities, and the private sector (contractors, consultants and operators), in addition to gender auditing of plans and designs for transport infrastructure, equipment and services[2].

However, even assuming that there is the political will and the resources to put these policies into practice, there are many challenges to be addressed before the transport sector can #BalanceForBetter! And many of these challenges relate to the substantive inequality, gender stereotyping and multiple discriminations that women face in our society today, and which cannot be addressed by the transport sector alone, but require a radical rethink of our institutional practices and our societies’ values.


Challenge No. 1: Balancing for Better within the institutions that deliver transport infrastructure and services

In the transport sector – especially, but not exclusively, in the road sector – state institutions at the national and local levels are responsible for the provision and maintenance of transport infrastructure. Historically the participation of women in the cadres of these institutions has been very low.

Ugandan women comprise only 6% of the engineering and works staff of the total public service workforce, and only 26% of all the employees of the works and transport public institutions in Uganda are women. More significantly, women are absent in decision-making positions of the Ministry of Works and Transport, comprising only 4.3% of the top decision-making positions[3].

In Kenya, affirmative action provisions in the statutory instruments require not more than two thirds of appointed staff to be of the same gender. This has created a better picture in terms of women’s participation in the leadership of Kenyan state institutions responsible for transport infrastructure provision. Kenya also has a budget allocation for gender mainstreaming, and a Public Service Commission directive issued in 2015 that requires all government institutions to:

“Afford adequate and equal opportunities for appointment, training and advancement, at all levels of the public service, to: (a) men and women; (b) members of all ethnic groups; (c) persons with disabilities.”

The Public Service Commission annually evaluates and reports to the president and parliament on the extent to which these gender equality values and principles are being mainstreamed, while the County Public Service Board reports to the county assemblies. Despite these positive institutional practices, not all institutions were able to comply, and the gender composition of the cadre of technical staff, and staff in the decentralised county offices, remains particularly problematic.

The low level of women applying for and getting technical jobs at a national level, or employment in the decentralised institutions, can be explained by recognising the gender disparities in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education, the gender biases attached to technology and technical jobs, and the patriarchal value system that delegates most care responsibilities to women, who are then faced with time poverty and the inability to take on jobs outside the home.


Challenge No. 2: Balancing for Better mobility and access

Women and men’s access and mobility needs and their use of transport systems are related to the roles that they play in society, and the access they have to resources. Where patriarchy determines gender roles, women are stereotyped to take responsibility for care work and much of the (usually unpaid) family labour, while men are stereotyped to be the breadwinners, the heads of household, who seek employment outside of the home. The care economy and the informal economy tend to be invisible to transport planners, whose sole concern seems to be to develop transport infrastructure to facilitate the movement of goods and services in the formal, monetised marketplace. The result of this is that in both urban and rural contexts, women’s transport needs and travel patterns don’t feature in the planning of either transport infrastructure or the provision of transport services.

In urban areas, the gendered division of labour means that women have multiple tasks and activities, so they commute shorter distances, chain trips, have more non-work-related trips, travel at off-peak hours, and choose more flexible modes[4]. But the OECD’s recent study Understanding Urban Travel Behaviour by Gender for Efficient and Equitable Transport Policies[5] showed that in the cities of Auckland, Dublin, Hanoi, Helsinki, Jakarta and Kuala Lumpur, trip chaining can be time-consuming and expensive. The study calls for a rethink of scheduling and greater attention to safety issues and pricing.

The time pressure to carry out domestic responsibilities is even greater in rural areas. The ReCAP gender mainstreaming studies show that in Ethiopia women and girls can spend up to 10 hours every day alone on tasks such as water collection[6]. In Ghana, about five times the proportion of adult women (60%) compared to adult men (11.6%) fetch water for their households[7]. Women are responsible for collecting drinking water in 57 and 63 percent of the rural households in Kenya and Uganda, respectively[8][9]. Adult women are also predominantly responsible for fuelwood collection in Ghana and Uganda[10].

There is little investment to improve the paths, roads or bridges that women and girls use to fetch water and fuel, to walk to the family fields or to go to school. Public transport services in rural areas tend to follow the logic of the transport infrastructure development and are largely scheduled as a service that takes formal workers to their workplaces, and local produce to more distant markets. Related to historic discriminations in asset ownership, women typically do not own private transport – bicycles, motorcycles, animal-drawn carts, or four-wheeled vehicles – so they travel mostly on foot, headloading their loads. This lack of access to transport modes exacerbates rural women’s time poverty. The unreliability and inflexibility of transport services make women compromise on their travel, so they are often reluctant to visit distant markets where they could command better prices for their products, or to travel further to avail themselves of better employment opportunities. In Assam, women weavers on the river island of Majuli felt that they lost a lot of custom at the craft fairs on the mainland because of the timing of the ferry services. But losing income was not the only issue. Unreliable transport services also contribute to loss of life, as women with pregnancy complications or experiencing illness are unable to reach hospitals in time[11].

So, Balancing for Better faces even greater challenges in rural transport infrastructure and services, but is essential if governments are not going to leave anyone behind.


Challenge No. 3: Balancing for Better participation of rural women in rural transport decision-making and implementation at the local level

As the women’s movement celebrates Beijing +25 in 2020, we would do well to reiterate the Beijing Platform for Action call not only to include women’s priorities in public investment programmes, transport and road construction, but also to ensure that women benefit from these programmes by being able to access jobs and contracts in transport and road construction. Evidence from Nepal shows that while women’s lives are improved through income-earning opportunities in rural transport infrastructure and through participation in oversight and planning committees, stronger recognition of women’s unpaid care work, and redistribution of unpaid care work responsibilities, are essential if women are to benefit from the opportunities in public investment programmes in transport and road construction.

Nepal’s Ministry of Federal Affairs and Local Development, responsible for rural transport and development, has a local infrastructure development policy that considers gender and social inclusion and includes quotas for women’s participation in user groups and construction teams. The ReCAP studies carried out in Nepal show that women and men participate in all the unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled tasks of road construction, but that women’s attendance tended to be irregular because of their unpaid care work. If there is no one else to handle the work of tending livestock, collecting fodder, and ensuring that their children are fed, women are likely to stay away from paid work. Some women said that carrying out their unpaid care work in addition to their work on construction tired them out and resulted in absenteeism. Where construction teams worked outside their own villages, fewer women participated because they felt insecure about living in the temporary labour camps without a male member of their family.

The stipulation of equal pay for women and men was translated into equal daily wages so that all men and women, whether working as skilled or unskilled labourers, earned an equal amount. Women did not benefit equally, because the pressures of unpaid care work meant that they engaged in paid work for fewer days than men.

Participation of women in many of the user committees was at 30% or above, as per the policy. User committees have agreements with the local District Technical Office for constructing roads, and are an important body for monitoring and supervising road construction. However it is not always that women participate in decision making. Often they have a token presence and their agency is compromised[12][13].


Conclusions and a call for action!

The above provides some indication of the difficulties in making transport infrastructure work for women and girls, looking not just at infrastructure investments alone, but also at the availability of transport services that are necessary for mobility of women and girls. It is clear that these difficulties cannot be overcome by the transport sector alone – as long as gender inequality and discriminations persist, as long as gender stereotypes devalue women and girls, they will not be able to fully participate in or benefit from investments in sustainable transport infrastructure.

However, it must also be said that as women activists we have not done much to hold governments accountable for their investments in transport or their provision of affordable, reliable transport services. The result of this is that many of the government agencies responsible for delivering transport infrastructure and services, as well as bilateral and multilateral agencies that finance such investments, are able to continue with these investments while at best paying lip service to gender equality and non-discrimination. We shouldn’t allow this situation to continue.

So, for a start, let’s advocate for the CSW63 agreed conclusions to build on the Commission’s agreed conclusions of last year (CSW62), when the main theme was rural women, and gender-responsive rural transport infrastructure and services were frequently referred to as being important in their own right as well as a means for rural women to access education, health services, employment opportunities, etc. The agreed conclusions of CSW63 must be expanded to include rural as well as urban transport.

Let’s support the CEDAW Committee in interrogating governments on their transport investments and the provision of transport services under CEDAW Article 14 and General Recommendation 34. Recent Concluding Observations have implied that Committee members increasingly scrutinise this area, and CEDAW shadow reports by civil society should not lose this opportunity to highlight transport concerns.

And in the lead-up to Beijing +25, let’s try to get transport infrastructure back on the agenda – after all, it’s a trillion-dollar global industry, and we need to ensure that it benefits women and girls.


[1] Tanzarn, N. (2018). Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport, Desk Review, GEN2157A. London: ReCAP for DFID.
[2] Ibid.
[3] Tanzarn, N. (2017). Scaling Up Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport: Policies, Practices, Impacts and Monitoring Processes – Case Study Report: Uganda. London: ReCAP for DFID.
[4] Ibid.
[5] Ng, W-S. and Acker, A. (2018) Understanding Urban Travel Behaviour by Gender for Efficient and Equitable Transport Policies. Paris: International Transport Forum.
[6] MetaMeta (2017) Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Road Construction and Usage in Ethiopia: Impact and Implications.
[7] Amoako-Sakyi, R.O. (2017) Scaling up Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport: Analysis of Policies, Practices, Impacts and Monitoring Processes: Case Study Report, Ghana.
[8] Tanzarn, N. (2017) Scaling Up Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport: Policies, Practices, Impacts and Monitoring Processes: Case Study Report, Kenya.
[9] Tanzarn, N. (2017) Scaling Up Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport: Policies, Practices, Impacts and Monitoring Processes: Case Study Report, Uganda.
[10] See Amoako-Sakyi, R.O. (2017) Scaling up Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport: Analysis of Policies, Practices, Impacts and Monitoring Processes: Case Study Report, Ghana, and Tanzarn, N. (2017) Scaling Up Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport: Policies, Practices, Impacts and Monitoring Processes: Case Study Report, Uganda.
[11] Author’s own research experience.
[12] WISE Nepal (2017) Gender Mainstreaming in Rural Transport Projects in Nepal: Transformative Changes at Household and Community Levels.
[13] Helvetas Swiss Intercorporation Nepal (2017) Transforming Gender Relations in the Trail Bridge Programme in Nepal: An Analysis of Policies and Practices.



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