Until a few days ago, Zahra Zulfiqar was juggling home, work, and studies all together like a superwoman. She was helping her mother run the house, submitting all her assignments on time, and gliding towards the dream of opening her own media agency one day.
But the 21-year-old’s difficult yet steady pace in life screeched to a halt, dangling to the edge of sabotage, after the government announced yet another increase in the prices of petroleum products. Zulfiqar wanted to reach her goals as soon as possible. Unfortunately, that required fuel, which is way out of the reach of the lay person now.
Zulfiqar is among millions of Pakistanis who have been affected by the exorbitant hike in petrol prices. She is also one of the tens of thousands of women who are now directly in the face of a financial crunch as mobility for them becomes harder and more expensive.
A day after the government decided to drop the second “petrol bomb”, an increase of another Rs30 within a week, Swvl — a popular bus sharing service — decided to pause its daily operations in Karachi, Lahore, Islamabad, and Faisalabad in view of the “global economic downturn”.
The move, which may seem normal for a start-up like Swvl, came as a shock to women in Karachi, many of whom had come to rely heavily on the service for their everyday commute. Zulfiqar is one of these women who used the pink buses to travel between work, home, and college.
“Ever since I have started traveling independently, I start my day at 7am,” she told Dawn.com. “Every night, before going to sleep, I booked a 7:46am Swvl to reach for my 8:30am class in time. The bus arrived on the road adjacent to my house … so it just took me a five-minute pedestrian bridge walk to reach the vehicle.”
The ride cost her between Rs130 and Rs145. “After my classes ended at 3pm, I would easily grab a Swvl from the university’s bus stop or the Silver Jubilee gate and reach my office in time. Often, even before my shift started,” she said.
If we calculate the average amount of money Zulfiqar spent on her daily commute till last week, it would be somewhere around Rs400. This came with the added perks of comfortable air-conditioned bus, no harassment, and security.
Laxmi, a household employee working at a bungalow in Defence, has a similar story. The 40-year-old resident of Soldier Bazaar, a locality in southern Karachi, took a 26-minute ride from her home to work every day which cost her somewhere between Rs50 and Rs150.
Working for almost a decade now, Laxmi said life got easier for her when one day her employer’s daughter told her about the bus service. “She downloaded the application on my mobile phone, and I started using the service. All I had to do was choose a time and insert the destinations and the pink buses were at service,” she said.
“Plus, the bus station is literally just two minutes away from the house so that cut downs long walks and hours of waiting,” Laxmi pointed out.
But with Swvl ending their service, the 40-year-old is now considering leaving her job and looking for a new one closer to her home. The reason? Long route and fuel cost.
“I can’t afford to take an Uber or Careem to Defence every day. The commute alone will eat up more than half of my pay,” she told Dawn.com.
As far as public transport is concerned, Laxmi shuddered and said: “I don’t want to compromise on my security for a few rupees.”
Women and mobility in Karachi
According to a study conducted by Shehri, an NGO focused on highlighting urban planning issues in Karachi, women are more dependent on public transport compared to men and 30 per cent more likely to use buses or wagons.
“This is in part because other options, such as riding independently on a motorcycle or bicycles (common transport modes for men), are taboo for women. Hence, men are 70pc more likely than women to travel in these private transport modes,” it stated.
In another study conducted by the Institute of Business Administration (IBA) and Habib University, which surveyed a pool of women from different areas and income groups, it was found that 58pc of women in blue-collar jobs and 83pc of students used mini-buses as their primary mode of transport, while 43pc of women in white-collar jobs reported using rickshaws for their daily travel.
Another mode of transport, the research pointed out, used by a growing number of women is the Qingqi. “Even though its routes are short and limited, it is still a preferred mode of transportation due to its low fares.”
However, despite these glaring statistics that reveal that a higher percentage of women are using public transport, no meaningful steps are being taken to improve the morbid situation of mass transit in Karachi, especially for women.
For decades, public transportation in the city has been a story of disinvestment and deferred maintenance.
“You can start off with the most basic problem. Mini-buses in Karachi, which are one of the most used modes of public transport, just have 15 seats for women in the entire vehicle,” Farhan Anwar, an urban planner and professor at the Habib University, told Dawn.com.
“Karachi is a city of 20 million with no public transport at all,” he said. “The infrastructure of public transport in Karachi has become hostage to designs that date back centuries and no one cares enough to rectify these problems.”
The urban planner revealed that the city itself was designed in a way that “induced traffic”.
“From flyovers to bridges, we have designed our roads prioritising cars, not pedestrians or cyclists. If you look closely, you will see that most of the city’s roads are broad. Why? Because they were designed with the aim to accommodate as many vehicles as possible — most of them, cars.”
Anwar continued that not only the buses, even the recently inaugurated Green Line project was a “scam” for Karachiites because of its point-to-point service. “Once you get on the bus, you must wait for it to reach the destination. You can’t get off in the middle, nor can you change your route. How do these things make the service convenient?
“In such circumstances, talking about gender mobility in Karachi looks like a far-fetched dream because the phenomenon requires strategic planning and cohesion, which, to be honest, the government is not capable of,” he regretted.
Bus stations in the city, Anwar further pointed out, were located at considerable distances, demanding intense walking from commuters. They weren’t safe, especially for women, neither did they cater to their basic requirements, such as privacy, space, and protection from harassment.
According to the Asian Development Bank, almost 40pc of women avoid traveling after dark in Pakistan, severely limiting their opportunities for further education or social life. Separately, another research by the Aurat Foundation — an NGO working against violence targeting women — revealed that of the 85pc of the women who commute for work or education, 15pc are forced to stay at home due to harassment.
All these reasons are a glaring reminder of why we need a safe mass transit mechanism for women in the city.
So, what is it with Swvl?
In all its conversations with women who used Swvl, Dawn.com came across a similar trend of why these women found the service so reliable. Two reasons topped the list: safety and money.
Hurmat Majid, a faculty member at the NED University, said that her daily expenses were cut from Rs1,600 to Rs400 after she started using Swvl. The amount she paid for her commute through the pink buses was a quarter of the cost of alternative options, primarily Careem.
“With the announcement of the service being shut down, my budget is suddenly all over the place. My options are to either spend Rs1,600 every time I go teach or to drag my husband and two-year-old out of bed at seven in the morning to drop me, spend three hours doing God knows what somewhere near the university and then pick me back up,” she said.
“Also, I barely make Rs1600 teaching a day to be spending that on commute,” the teacher, in her mid-30s, added.
Maham Laique, who works in the tech industry, agreed. “I started using Swvl because it was a much cheaper option compared to Uber, Careem, or even rickshaws. Just recently, I took a Swvl from Dolmen Mall Clifton to Gulistan-e-Jauhar just for Rs100.”
“But to be honest, apart from the monetary relief, I feel Swvl also gave me a sense of liberty and freedom. I don’t have to depend on someone in my family for a ride, nor do I have to be perpetually scared of being catcalled, groped, or harassed,” Laique said.
Moreover, she continued, the buses had kind of become home. “I had made so many friends on my way to and back from work. Some days it felt like we were back in school, chatting with our friends on the bus without any worries.”
Meanwhile, for Laxmi, the biggest reason for using Swvl was the safety the buses brought with them. “I have been working for over a decade and I have been groped by men on these mini-buses hundreds of times.
“Sometimes they would grab me from behind, while in other instances they would follow me home,” she said.
Laxmi’s work timings are not conventional. “Sometimes, I am back home by 5pm, other times the hours extend to 10pm. And I don’t have someone at home to pick or drop me off. I have to manage it all on my own.”
Unfortunately, these tedious timings make the 40-year-old’s job even more difficult than it already this. But with Swvl, things got better. “My station is just adjacent to my house, so I don’t have to wait at the bus stands for hours. Plus, even at odd times, I easily found a ride back home. The drivers were reliable, and my baaji (employer) tracks my location until I reach home.”
Don’t upset the women
For working class women in Karachi, access to the city is only possible by public transport. A 2015 ADP study found that a lack of safe transport was one of the key reasons for women’s lower participation in the labour force, particularly in developing countries and cities not served by efficient public transport.
“For many women, labour force participation translated into financial empowerment. Moreover, public transportation is the cheapest form of transport within the city, thus enabling women to save money,” the report stated.
When women lose the ease to freely move in the city, the loss is not just incurred by them but also the economy. It also negatively affects their productive role and participation in the public sphere.
Salman Sufi, the Prime Minister’s Special Assistant on Strategic Reforms, hopes that the government will come up with a way to prevent this.
He told Dawn.com that the government will be holding a meeting with ride-sharing platforms this week to hear their challenges and proposals. “The prime minister has told us to check all options,” he said.