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Mobility Barriers to Women’s Work and Education Perspectives from a Pre-and Post-Pandemic India


Simi Mehta, Sunidhi Agarwal, Anshula Mehta, Ritika Gupta, Mahima Kapoor, Sakshi Sharda, Ishika Chaudhary

While women have always faced problems with mobility, the kinds of problems faced were different before, during, and after the pandemic. In order to discuss the various mobility issues faced by women through different times, and possible solutions for alleviating them, the Gender Impact Studies Center (GISC) at IMPRI Impact and Policy Research Institute, New Delhi, organized an online discussion onMobility Barriers to Women’s Work and Education Perspectives from a Pre-and Post-Pandemic India, on 27 May 2021. The session was kick-started by Dr Simi Mehta, CEO and Editorial Director, IMPRI, introducing the moderator, speaker, and discussants.

Mobility Barriers to Women’s Work and Education Perspectives from a Pre-and Post-Pandemic India

The discussion was then started with a moderator, Prof Vibhuti Patel, Former Professor, TATA Insitute of Social Sciences, Mumbai, pointing out the 2012 rape of a physiotherapy student which led to a reduction in women’s work participation from 34% to 27% in 4 years (2013-2017), and currently, it is 18% women workforce. Studies show that street harassment, problems in mobility, and harassment faced by women while travelling to work and school/college, are major deterrents of women dropping out of educational institutions and work participation. Experiences of NGOs and researchers support that wherever special infrastructural facilities are provided and a cluster approach is used, female retention in organizations is higher.

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Only 25% of girls are able to enter higher education, and some of the major mobility issues faced by women in India are due to gender stereotypes, gender discrimination, cultural barriers, and so on. Micro studies have also shown that with the rise in security issues, parents are more hesitant in sending the girls to schools or workplaces. As 40% of women MBAs are unemployed, it is a great puzzle as to why the number of women professionals remains low while the number of female degrees holders is increasing.

Women’s Mobility

Ms Nikita Sharma, Managing Editor, International Growth Centre, London, United Kingdom, then began with her presentation. As per Thomas Reuters’ survey, India was ranked as the world’s most dangerous country for women in 2018. In 2021, India ranked 140 among 156 countries in Global Gender Gap Index, dropping 28 places since 2020.

According to the NCPCR (National Commission on Protection of Child Rights) report 2018, 39.8% of adolescent girls were not attending schools. As the distance from school increases, the perceived risk of being harassed on the way increases. Bihar Governments initiative to provide bicycles to girls in grade 9th and above led to a 32% increase in female enrolment in school, and a 40% reduction in gender gaps in schools.

A study supported by UN Women revealed that 95% of females aged 16-49 years feel unsafe in public spaces of Delhi. 80% of women aged 40 years or younger avoided a particular area out of perceived fear of harassment. Women are also willing to pay more for a safer yet expensive mode of transportation.

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 India’s female labor force participation has been declining and was 18.6% as of 2019, the lowest in South Asia.

Women are seen as secondary earners in families and face familial and social constraints that deter them from working outside.

Ms Nikita Sharma

Women are also 6 times more likely to exit the labor market than enter it. The birth of a child can be associated with a 3 percent point increase in the probability of exiting.

According to Chakraborty et al., 2018, women are not only less likely to work in areas that seem less safe, but they also have to deal with the tradeoff between the opportunity cost of working, and the social stigma and psychological cost of harassment.

As per a study by Siddique in 2020, media reporting of violence and assault against women can reduce the probability of women outside her home by as much as 5.5%. Only a select number of women, who were privileged enough to possess digital access, access to the internet, and digital skills, were able to benefit from the work from a home pattern that emerged with the ongoing pandemic. Even those women have had to juggle work, house chores, and care work.

Lockdown heightened the vulnerability of domestic violence victims and the fear of the creation of new victims. Preliminary findings by Shah and Ravindran, 2020, revealed that there was a 131% increase in domestic violence and cybercrime, however, rape and sexual assault decreased by 119%. The effects were found to be stronger in regions with stricter lockdowns, and an increase in people with attitudes who thought domestic violence was justified.

In 2015, McKinsey reported that if India took appropriate measures to make security stronger for women, its GDP could grow by 700 Billion by 2025. Some of the ways in which the situation could be made better are, by making public and private spaces secure and better connected, influencing planning and city designs, getting employers to shift gender norms, and encourage more women to work, services to strengthen women’s attachment to the labor market, fostering women’s social networks, and changing mindsets.

Prof Patel emphasized the importance of changing employer’s outlook, providing safe public transportation, and using a cluster approach in order to reduce the impact of mobility barriers for women.  She also expressed her support for safety audits.

“Let’s focus on building a safe city instead of a smart city”.

Prof Vibhuti Patel

Digital Divide

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Dr Rajshree Trivedi, Principal, Maniben Nanavati Women’s College, Mumbai, took over to point out that the first mobility concern for women begins at home as they are not allowed to leave home early morning on rainy days or winters, and she revealed the importance of focusing on silent places safer.

In terms of issues faced by women during the pandemic, Dr Trivedi talked about the digital divide, lack of resources for women, and increased burden of household chores and care work for women, and resulting lack of motivation among women, that makes it difficult for females to devote time and efforts for their career. Post pandemic, Dr Rajshree anticipates that there will be high rates of dropouts which will eventually impact their workforce participation, and it will ultimately affect the overall GDP of the country.

Heteronormative Transportation

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Dr Cicilia Chettiar, Head of Department, Dept. of Psychology, Maniben Nanavati Women’s College, Mumbai, talked about one of the biggest issues being girls restricting themselves and not believing in the existence of scope for mobility in the first place as girls perceive that getting married and having kids in the future would pose problems for them in travelling for work. Another prevailing problem is heteronormative transportation choices as women are more like to choose smaller vehicles for themselves and men are likely to choose bigger ones. Women are also more likely to be victims of road rage.

According to Dr Cicilia, female working students tend to prioritize their work over their education as they tend to neglect transportation to college in order to go to work, and parents tend to not object to it. She believes that girls need to be motivated within themselves to pave ways for their own development and growth, and she holds that women need to be empowered to deal with their natural maternal instincts, and not feel guilty when they go to work after they have had children, and leave them at daycare to go to work.

Technology & Safety Audits

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Ms Aditi Ratho, Associate Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, Kolkata, brought to light, research conducted by Observer Research Foundation in association with Youth Ki Awaaz, over a period of 10 months, that involved the participation of more than 4200 women across 140 Indian cities. The women were surveyed on what could make them feel safer in using transportation, and what current forms of complaints and redressal are they not comfortable with using. Results revealed that women felt most unsafe in congested interchanges, and in transportation facilities lacking technological safety measures such as non-app-based taxis, or transportation modes that required close physical proximity to a stranger.

About 60-80% of women don’t know about emergency numbers and don’t feel comfortable going to authorities for redressal. There is a need to complement technological safety measures with safety audits, and safety mapping in order really make women feel safer travelling through public transportation.

Patriarchal Norms

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According to Dr Sangeeta Desai, Assistant Professor, Research Centre for Women’s Studies, Delhi,  the public spaces in the country are highly gendered with fewer spaces restricted to women. Because of the deeply entrenched patriarchal norms, most women consider themselves as secondary earners of the family and hence prefer not to work even after a high degree of education. There are also workplace factors of safety, security, and equality in terms of pay, that compels women to leave the country, and not work for organizations within the country.

Way Forward

Prof Vibhuti pointed out the role of subsidized transportation for women in improving the mobility of women, for instance, since Delhi Government made the metro free for women, more women who were previously working from home were now willing to go long distances for work. Dr Desai also agreed with her and also expressed her concern over lesser seats in public transportation being reserved for women. She believes that as more spaces are booked only for women, they tend to feel safer and are more likely to travel then.

For her final word, Ms Nikita added a study from Zambia where they taught adolescent girls negotiation skills based on the Harvard curriculum and results reflected that those girls eventually were able to believe in themselves, and learned to stand up for themselves, and eventually improved their mobility not just to educational institutions but also to their future workplaces.

Prof Vibhuti further concluded the session by pointing out the need to make public spaces safer for women to improve their mobility, making females believe in themselves so they can stand up for their dreams, and the need for changing societal mindsets that restrict women’s mobility.

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Dr Simi Mehta then ended the session with the quote “No city can be smart unless it is safe”, and then thanking the panellists and audience for their presence and insights.

Acknowledgement: Mahi Dugar is a research intern at IMPRI.

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