Linda Karwitha says she’ll never forget being groped in a public minibus while going to work over a year ago.
“I was used to the catcalls, sexually suggestive comments, and looks, but I never thought it would become physical. So when a man began gyrating against me from behind, I froze! I didn’t know whether I should scream or tell him to stop.”
Linda’s ordeal is not unique. A new report titled Women and Public Transport in Nairobi, a collaboration launched by UN Women, Kenyatta University, and the Stockholm Environment Institute in Nairobi shows 80 per cent of women who use matatus in Kenya endure daily harassment.
Research shows most women are helpless in this situation. For the mere seven per cent of those who report their harassment ordeals, authorities often do very little or nothing to the perpetrators.
“Only one per cent of the action taken after incidents of harassment led to the perpetrators being apprehended,” said Rukaya Mohammed, the UN Women deputy country representative, Kenya.
She said sexual and emotional harassment while using public transport stops women from accessing and fully exploiting economic opportunities. It discourages them from enjoying social services.
Transport Cabinet Secretary James Macharia highlighted the role of Kenya’s public transport in perpetuating gender inequality. He said despite Africa being the fastest urbanising continent, the expansion of transport infrastructure does not match the growth of the cities. This factor contributes to gender inequality.
At the forefront of closing the gender inequality gap in the transport industry is Beth Mbuitu, the Association of Matatu Operators chief executive.
The AMO provides a platform to report assault cases and run sensitisation campaigns for matatu operators. It also lobbies for the interests of women in the transport industry, counsels victims of sexual harassment, and pushes for legal action against perpetrators.
The association seeks to create a comfortable environment for commuters and operators. In case of harassment, Mbuitu urges commuters and matatu operators to report incidents on their social media page or visit their office at the 680 Hotel building.
Matatu operator Natalia Wanjiru has been a conductor for more than 10 years. She says the male-dominated industry has not been easy to navigate. She cited an incident where she accompanied a driver on a long-distance route and he expected them to share a room at night.
“To avoid confrontation or unwanted sexual relations with the driver, I often lie that I am unwell.”
She added: “In this industry, the driver calls the shots and decides which conductor accompanies him, and how much the conductor will be paid.”
Wanjiru said she has to work harder than the men to prove herself.
“But I am happy that the industry is becoming more women-friendly, and we have a degree of safety through support from organisations such as AMO,” she says.
“I’ve had to defend female passengers against harassment countless times. The more women are in this industry, the safer it will be for not only the female passengers but also the elderly and the sick.”
Driver Daisy Moraa says she does not think about working in any other industry.
The single mother without formal training says she earns a salary of more than Sh100,000.
Despite the challenges, she’s convinced there are opportunities for women in the industry.