All over the world, women face astounding rates of sexual harassment on public transport. In Kenya, this issue affects 88 percent of women. What if we could redesign public transport systems to fundamentally improve safety for women and other vulnerable groups? This is the question social entrepreneur Naomi Mwaura is answering with FLONE Initiative – the organization she founded in 2013. Ashoka’s Josephine Nzerem caught up with Naomi. They spoke about her deep love and appreciation for “matatus” – Kenya’s minibuses – and how she is transforming an entire industry from the ground up by putting more women in charge.
Josephine Nzerem: For those who aren’t familiar with Kenya’s transport system, could you explain how matatus are run?
Naomi Mwaura: In Kenya, we don’t have government-operated transport. Any private citizen with the proper licenses can buy and operate a bus, a matatu. The people who run the vehicle, such as the driver and conductor, are all paid informally. There is no contract or minimum wage. This type of employment is crucial, because Kenya has a high youth unemployment rate. Public transport is the one place a young person can go without having to dress up, without having to speak proper English, and still manage to go home with $5.
Nzerem: When did you decide that public transport in Kenya needed to be reformed?
Mwaura: Growing up, my family ran a matatu, in my hometown. It was very colorfully painted and very popular. It gave me an appreciation of public transport’s ability to create employment for a whole extended family while providing freedom of mobility.
But while in university, I had the terrible experience of being assaulted on a bus, which made me reflect on the general state of public transport in Kenya. I was jolted into action when two years later, I saw a viral video of a woman being physically assaulted on a bus. My university friends and I decided to organize a protest to bring attention to the issue of women’s safety. Only four of us showed up and we ended up with more media than protestors. Thankfully, my lawyer friend had the brilliant idea to turn it into a press conference and this is how the Flone Initiative Trust was born.
Nzerem: You have come a long way since then. What was the first gap you started to plug?
Mwaura: One of the things we struggled with in the beginning was a lack of data. We had lived experiences, as women using public transport, but we could not find data to back up our negative experiences. That’s why the foundation of all we do is action research and knowledge generation. We started tracking incidents, which allowed us to make specific recommendations to the matatu industry. For example, we learned they could make their bus routes safer for women simply by having predictable routes and schedules. There’s now an ongoing conversation about gender and mobility in Kenya and East Africa. And there’s also new interest in looking at the travel needs of other vulnerable groups like people with disabilities or the elderly. We now work with more than 3,000 matatu operators, 100+ transport stakeholders (including government agencies and labor unions) and more than 1,000 women professionals to implement our interventions.
Nzerem: How did Flone bring this conversation into the mainstream?
Mwaura: The tipping point of our work came when we became co-organisers of the #MyDressMyChoice protest in response to three viral videos of women being assaulted and having their clothes stripped off at bus terminals. It was the first time people came to me and said “Now I understand what you are talking about. I didn’t think it was that bad…” Our actions led to legal reforms that makes stripping women of their clothes punishable by up to 10 years — a crime that is specific to the public transport industry.
Nzerem: How are you getting women involved? What role are they playing in shaping the transport industry?
Mwaura: Depending on who you ask, women professionals are estimated to make up about only seven percent of the public transport workforce. Our Women in Transport program works to attract, retain and advance women professionals in the industry. We provide professional development training, like driving courses or financial management courses. That way women drivers can get the financial muscles needed to move higher in the industry. So we need to invest in women throughout the value chain. Let’s make sure more of them become manufacturers, assemblers, designers, engineers.
Nzerem: As more women enter the transportation industry, what changes? Anything surprising in particular?
Mwaura: Interestingly, other vulnerable groups feel more comfortable when women are in charge. According to our research, people with disabilities prefer vehicles run by a woman conductor. They say that women tend to take better care of their accessibility aids like canes and wheelchairs. And other women are more likely to entrust women with their kids, especially school kids. Other women are also joining the industry after seeing our members on National TV talking about their careers.
Nzerem: What are you pushing to accomplish today?
Mwaura: We are building a movement of inclusive mobility in Kenya, where we break down siloes and bring support to the three main stakeholders: practitioners, commuters and government officials. We can’t solve the entire issue alone – we need everyone. For example, last year we worked with Machakos county officials. They independently conducted a safety audit of their town’s transport infrastructure and we helped them create a toolbox. By building the government’s capacity in this way, we hope we will get to a point where public transport is regulated and run by the government.
We’re also doing a big push on behavior change, because some of the issues we are dealing with in public transport are due to culture and socialization. We need to get to a point where people are self-regulating. And this, unfortunately, takes a bit more time. We achieve this through public awareness campaigns, having religious and cultural leaders speak up, and doing capacity building for the industry, especially in informal transport, where there is no standardized training.
Nzerem: What excites you about the future of transport in Kenya?
Mwaura: Something I keep thinking about is the fact that, up until the 1990s in Kenya, women could not open a bank account without approval from their husband or family. When somebody told me that, it seemed utterly absurd. So I hope that future commuters will look back and say, ‘Hey, there was a time when public transport wasn’t the best way for women to travel; isn’t that absurd?’ I see a future where public transport is safe, accessible, and a great workplace for Kenyans.
Follow Naomi Mwaura on Twitter.