The daughter of a colleague was recently sexually assaulted in a minibus taxi on her way home from school.
Another passenger already on board forced her to touch his genitals. Rather than stopping the vehicle or helping in any way, the driver appeared to be complicit in the attack, speeding off with the girl and her attacker in the back seat. Thankfully the girl escaped.
This shocking incident is not uncommon. There has been a marked increase in reports of sexual attacks on women travelling in taxis. One particularly egregious example involved a woman who was raped in front of her 10-year-old child.
Not all attacks are as brutal or serious as these examples. But as a public transport user, I am well aware of the abuses women routinely face. I have witnessed men attempting to grope women trying to get off a packed taxi, and making lewd comments about the way they are dressed. In many cases the drivers cheer these men on. I also know the unspoken rule that a woman sitting in front should be put in the middle seat and if she objects to the advances of the driver, she may well be kicked out of the vehicle.
A survey conducted by ActionAid South Africa in May found that 56% of women who use minibus taxis said they had experienced some form of violence and 69% said they had witnessed it.
It’s not just when they are in the taxis that women are unsafe. Two women armed with a secret video camera captured what went on at a taxi rank. In just over 10 hours of footage, they recorded more than 150 incidents of sexual harassment.
Unsafe public transport is having a devastating effect on women’s ability to participate in the workforce or get healthcare and other services. This particularly affects black women, who are the primary caregivers in the majority of households. Proportionately, few black women can afford to own a car. The majority live in low-income areas far from their work and services they need.
To achieve equitable freedom of movement, public transport has to be safe for all. Yet this is an area in which South Africa continues to fall short. Authorities fail to consider the role gender plays in public transport. We can and must do better to ensure that women are safe when they travel.
In June amandla.mobi, in a joint effort with Soul City and other women-centred organisations, invited women to suggest ways to improve safety when using taxis. The submissions were used to develop a Safe Taxis Now charter, an attempt to ensure that those most affected, black women, are at the forefront of shaping the solutions.
One important step identified is the need to regulate the taxi industry, which, according to the South African National Taxi Council (Santaco), transports an estimated 15-million people a day. Drivers should be vetted and stickers placed on all taxis, displaying the name of the driver and his association to make it easier to identify miscreants.
A significant first step was recently taken by the transport department, which issued a proclamation stating that “all new South African taxis must be colour-coded and look exactly the same within the next six months”. If implemented, it would greatly assist in enabling women to identify legitimate taxis.
Another suggestion was to install CCTV cameras at taxi ranks and dashboard cameras inside taxis.
There is also a call for more women drivers and owners, which will require a deliberate effort to break down the barriers facing women in the sector.
Another idea is a hotline number for gender-based violence and mobile police stations at taxi ranks, to make it easier for women to report incidents.
It’s also important to recognise that the problem is not limited to the taxi itself. Women are at risk walking to and from the taxi ranks. We need to find ways to connect various public transport systems in much more seamless and accessible ways to reduce waiting times and to allow people to be dropped off as close as possible to their destinations.
Although these ideas are aimed at protecting women, they do not address the fundamental issue of men’s sense of entitlement over women’s bodies or the culture of impunity. But behaviour change will take time. Sonke Gender Justice, in partnership with Santaco, has been at the forefront of one such intervention, training taxi drivers and queue marshals on how to respond to gender-based violence.
Nothing in the charter is impossible. But it requires a change in attitude and political will on the part of government. The needs of women must be included in all public transport planning and policy.
The good news is, women are providing the answers. All our leaders need to do is to listen and to act.
Koketso Moeti has worked at the intersection of governance, communication and citizen action. She is a 2017 Aspen New Voices Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @Kmoeti