Shumona Sharmin Sharna
"I held you so that you don't fall", the comment came from a young helper in a public bus routed from Motijheel to Dhaka National Zoo. These comments can be heard frequently in various public transports in the capital.
Females are continuously being harassed in public conveys. While boarding, leaving and even while on the bus they are being humiliated. This form of harassment while travelling in community buses starts from verbal and goes down till physical abuse.
Dhaka's rapid urban sprawl resulting from an increase in population over the past decade has created a massive demand for transport. Women labour participation has increased enormously. Thus dependence on communal convey has increased as well.
Yet the demand has not been fulfilled by sufficient investment in transport infrastructure, services and management. As a result, traffic conditions in Dhaka have seriously deteriorated, characterised by daily traffic jams, long delays, and high incidence of road accidents.
While insufficient transport service adversely affects all residents, women commuters face particular mobility constraints. Women's access to social and economic opportunities and their manoeuvrability in public places are alarmingly compromised by the lack of an effective transport system. As a result women are seen competing with men during getting on a bus, often physically humiliated by other passengers and conductors while boarding.
Generally working women, who are dependent on community transports to reach their destinations, are the main victim of physical harassment.
During a spot visit, this Observer correspondent identified several public buses where young conductors justified their indecent actions by saying that they make sure none of the women passengers fell off. As the buses collect passengers stopping every now and then in the middle of the road while on the go, it is highly possible that a woman can slip during boarding. To prevent such an accident, conductors or helpers hold women passengers.
Many women informed this correspondent that conductors and other passengers intentionally humiliate them and justify themselves by saying they are only protecting them. As they do not have any other means of transport, they are dependent on city conveys. Thus such humiliation can't be avoided.
On the contrary, most community transport drivers and helpers explain that avoiding accidents and ensuring safety is their first priority, whether the passenger is a man or woman.
Why do they keep the bus running while boarding and departing female passengers? When the drivers and conductors were asked this question they answered saying that as they run a local transport other buses cue up prior to them. If they don't move from the stoppage early, and the next bus arrives in the meantime, they will lose clients and have to answer to their authority.
Besides humiliation while boarding community conveys, women are also harassed by male passengers on the bus.
Generally, nine seats are seen to be reserved for women, children, elders and handicapped in community transports. Many buses provide only these nine reserved seats for women which are not enough compared to the number of women commuters. As a result, most women travel standing with other male passengers. Several women complain that during that time, male passengers try to abuse them physically and when they stand up, they get verbally abused.
However a government bank officer claims that a lot of people travel by bus standing. During that time, when the drivers break hard, it is quite impossible to balance. He said women are competing with men in work places, in streets, if they are so conscious about anyone touching them, they might just stay at home.
Moreover, male passengers often occupy these nine reserved seats in the city transport. When they are asked to empty the seats by women passengers, they verbally humiliate the ladies. This kind of humiliation happens even when women try to occupy seats other than the reserved ones.
As a growing economy, Bangladesh has a large portion of female workers in various fields. Garments, transport, corporate, governmental institutions are seeing more and more women engaging themselves in work. A recent survey conducted by Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics reveals that till 2010, women labour force participation rate increased approximately by ten per cent. Around 17.2 million women are now working in various places of Bangladesh. These women are opting for public transports to get to their offices and harassment on bus makes it even more difficult to work- said Tahmina, a senior officer at a private bank.
Bangladesh supreme court has defined sexual harassment as unwelcome sexually determined behavior (whether directly or by implication) as physical contact and advance. Section 75 of the Sexual Harassment act of Bangladesh and of the Dhaka Metropolitan Police Ordinance, 1976 provides for imprisonment for three months or fine or both if someone uses indecent language or behaves indecently in public places, streets etc. Section 76 of the same Ordinance provides for one year's imprisonment or fine or both for teasing a woman once complaint.
In addition, in the face of quick rise of the incidents of so-called eve-teasing, the government has included section 509 of the Penal Code in the schedule to the Mobile Court act, 2009-empowering the Executive Magistrates to impose punishments on the perpetrators on the spot. Section 509 of the Penal Code is quoted below:
"Whoever, intending to insult the modesty of any woman, utters any word, makes any sound or gesture, or exhibits any object, intending that such word or sound shall be heard, or that such gesture or object shall be seen, by such woman, or intrudes upon the privacy of such woman, shall be punished with simple imprisonment for a term which may extend to one year, or with fine, or with both."
However, the act is hard to implement unless women complain such behaviours on the spot.
Advocate Maksuda Akhter, legal advocacy of Bangladesh Mahila Parishad, told this Observer correspondent that there are some mobile courts to prevent such behaviors, but unless women file a complaint it is hard for them to spot and judge.
Traffic officer at Bangladesh National Zoo also substantiated this claim by saying that even if they see any helper or conductor misbehaving with any female passenger, before the traffic does something, the bus runs off.
Founder president of Karmojibi Nari and Bangladesh Jatiyo Sromik Jote (BJSJ) and Minister of Parliament, Shirin Akhter while answering a query on why there is no bus just for women so that this situation can be prevented, said that, even if the government provides women only public transports, it will be hard to find a female bus driver or conductor, therefore women only buses having male drivers and conductors will not be a plausible solution. She also said that providing public transport only for women will be hard for the government because the number of working women is enormous.
She suggested that, the point of view of a male to a female must be changed rather than providing separate transports. Shirin Akhter asserts that it is women who must be united and stand against all the malicious behavior; otherwise none of the suggested solution will work.