In the field

Blog post. Abuja. July 2019: 

“By the roadside it was a mad rush as okadas (motorbike-taxis) were really scarce. Everyone was in a hurry to get one. So they were little or no bargain for prices, the riders were obviously taking advantage of that. Just as we were standing hoping to get an okada I heard loud screams of various people, some were saying aaahhh! Jeesuus, Auzibilahi!! Yeeyeee! Inna lalahi [Aaahh, Jesus, I seek refuge from the devil, everything is from God!. The two young men I was standing with all turned and saw an okada, its rider and a mother in her early 30s with her school-girl daughter on the ground all in in the mud. We all rushed to them; young men took up the bike, making it stand, everyone was ok only the mother sustained injury on her elbow while trying to shield her daughter from the impact of the fall. I almost felt like trekking- and not taking an okada, but I would be late so I had to” (A peer researcher’s travel diary).

On the 20 May 2019, we kicked off our Nigeria field research for the project “Youth engagement and skills acquisition within Africa’s transport sector: promoting a gender agenda towards transitions into meaningful work.”  The project, which is being conducted in peripheral, low-income neighbourhoods of three different cities in Africa – Tunis, Abuja and Cape Town – is aimed at understanding the diverse transport-related constraints young women living there experience in their day-to-day lives and how transport-related issues impact on their work opportunities.  Transport is not simply about getting to a destination: mobilities are experienced through the body and are part of everyday life – they may not only be physical but also virtual (particularly through the use of mobile phones to leapfrog physical distance). Young people travel to school, work or when visiting relatives or friends, either by walking or using private or public transport, and often experience unequal power relations when doing so.

The story related at the start of this blog was just one of many difficult tales we heard in a hotel conference room in Abuja as we worked with the seven motivated young women from local communities whom we were training as peer researchers.  By training young women (aged between 18 and 35) from the communities so that they can research the experiences of their peers in their home neighbourhoods at the outset of this project, we hope to get a much stronger understanding of  the mobility challenges such women face in their daily lives.  We have taken this approach to ensure that our subsequent action study is fully grounded in the questions and issues they raise.  This approach is novel but has been used very effectively in a series of mobility studies with commonly disadvantaged groups by the project PI (e.g. Porter 2016; Porter et al. 2017): it forms the first stage of the project in all three of the study cities.  

Despite our workshop taking place during Ramadan in Nigeria, the workshop days were filled with intense discussion and debate.  The peer researchers interviewed each other, mapped out the locations they considered as unsafe/safe on large sheets of paper, and discussed why they found certain areas problematic. Field exercises, interspersed with classroom work, ensured that the peer researchers own travel stories, travel diaries and the initial interviews they conducted with people in their home communities were shared and discussed.  Some of the women and girls interviewed during this week had experienced significant violence in their daily travels, from knife threats to severe traffic accidents when travelling in overcrowded vehicles; occasionally their money was stolen.  Many young women said they often felt unsafe travelling in the city, but were still compelled to travel, despite this insecurity, in order to make a living.

At the end of the training week our seven peer researchers received certificates for their participation, but they are now continuing data collection, with support from the research assistants (staff at the University of Abuja and Jos who were trained to provide support to the peer researcher teams through their participation in the workshop process itself). 

During the week we also held the first of the Nigeria Country Consultative Group (CCG) meeting.  Here the project team [see below] and our peer researchers were joined by representatives from the Federal Road Safety Corps (FRSC), National Union of Road Transport Workers (NURTW), Federal Ministry of Women Affairs and Social Development (FMWASD), National Centre for Women Development (NCWD),  Abuja Urban Mass Transport Company (AUMTCO), village leaders, youth leaders, the National Centre for Woman Development, the International Women’s Centre as well as Abuja Urban Mass Transportation Company.  All actively engaged in the discussions and raised  important points. Some argued that there was a stereotype that public transport jobs were mainly for men, and it was hard to motivate women to be involved either as bus drivers, or conductors. Others were more optimistic, claiming that they had been overwhelmed by the response of women who wanted to be involved in the transport sector, perhaps as conductors or mechanics. At the meeting, a few of the participants reminded us of the need to consider  important issues such as disability and the need to take into account diverse types of pedestrians in the planning and  actual physical construction of bridges. Disabilities can have a major impact on women’s experience of transport, but pregnant women may also have difficulties when traversing the footbridges. Further, we should be aware of women travelling on foot in particular.

The peer researchers are still busy conducting interviews with community members as well as reporting their personal travel stories. We will keep you posted on the progress of our research and the main issues emerging.


Prof Gina Porter, Durham University, UK (Project PI)

Dr Claire Dungey, Durham University, UK (Project PDRA)

Dr Fatima Adamu, Usmanu Danfodiyo University, Sokoto (Nigeria country lead)

Dr Plangsat Dayil, University of Jos (Nigeria CI)

Mrs Hadiza A. Ahmad, University of Abuja (RA)

Mr Yahaya Joseph Mshelia, University of Jos (RA)

Mrs Sa’adat Yakubu, Assistant Field Researcher

Our peer researchers: 

Aisha Umar Mohammed, Aisha Musa, Umar Nasirat Usman, Bulus Patience, Maryam Abdullahi, Hafsat Adamu[1], Hauwa Mohammed.

[1] Had to leave the project due to time constraints

Blog post by Professor Emma Murphy. Tunis, June 2019

Women’s mobility in Tunisia: early project results high-light insecurity

“Everyday, a pick-up truck comes to pick me up with 7 other women. We get in the back of the truck, dealing with the early morning cold. We don’t get paid enough. We spend fifteen minutes on the road. I don’t feel safe. I’m worried the whole way. And sometimes it rains on us. I leave my house at seven and sometimes I wait till eight for the pick-up truck to show up. Sometimes the driver doesn’t come and he asks us to figure things out ourselves. The driver avoids police check-points so he will not get fined for carrying people in his truck. One time, oil was spilled on the road. The truck started slipping and we thought we were going to die” (28- year- old woman,  Arroussia).

On the 27th April a pick-up truck collided with a minivan carrying poultry in the Sabala district of Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia. Traffic accidents are common here: the country suffers from long-neglected road infrastructure, especially in central rural areas like Sidi Bouzid. Road safety and driving standards are poor, there is inadequate vehicle and  traffic regulation and enforcement, and there is a chronic lack of public transport which suffers from historic under-investment and over-centralisation. Not surprisingly then, national statistics indicate an average of 239 deaths per 100,000 citizens compared to 36 per 100,000 in the UK.

But this accident high-lighted a particular and gendered aspect of Tunisian transport. Of the 12 people killed, seven were women. Like many women living in rural areas, they were employed as cheap agricultural labour. Such women, working long hours with no social protection, poor working conditions, and for very low wages, comprise 58% of the rural workforce according to the United Nations. 32% of all Tunisian women live in rural areas and  17% of are employed in the agricultural sector but with a female rural unemployment rate of 35% they have little collective leverage in battling for improvements in their working status despite making a massive contribution to national food production and security.

So each day, farmers can take their pick of women seeking work, cramming them into the back of unregulated pick-up trucks to drive them often very long distances to precarious work on the farms. Accidents are common: just before the April 27th event, 9 farm workers fell from a lorry and were injured  in the Ragada region of Kairouan and another two died in an accident in Zaghouan. On this occasion, however, a social media campaign quickly picked up demanding that the government step in to stop farmers treating their low-paid, mostly female workforce “like cattle”. Demonstrations and protests broke out in Sidi Bouzid and other rural towns, and opposition parties and trade unions were quick to join forces in condemning government failures to regulate the work and transport conditions of agricultural labour.

In fact, the problems had already made it onto the government’s “to do” list. Just a  month before the government had announced a series of measures designed to support women in work, optimistically labelled the National Strategy for Economic and Social Empowerment of Women and Girls in Rural Areas Initiative. The first measure, called Ahmini (‘protect me’) is a digital app. which allows female agricultural workers to register on-line with the public health system, without the need for an employer’s sponsorship and at very low cost to themselves. It is unfortunate that many women are unlikely to benefit from this given low digital skills in rural areas and poor internet service. The second measure which aims to enhance women’s mobility is to authorise public transport systems to offer transport services to agricultural workers outside their currently authorised operational zones. Again, the efficacy of this will be limited by the already inadequate fleet sizes of the bus companies which mean that they cannot properly service even those areas in which they already operate. The early interview data gathered by peer researchers on the Youth engagement and skills acquisition within Africa’s transport sector project clearly indicate that there are not enough buses (and even these are in poor and often dangerous condition), that there are too few bus routes meaning frequent transfers between vehicles and long waits in between, that the buses are severely over-crowded and that they are particularly  unsafe for women who are subjected to daily harassment, pick-pocketing and mugging.    Similarly, collective taxis are dangerously over-crowded, badly driven, poorly maintained and expose women to regular scrutiny and abuse for how they look and what they wear. Private buses and taxis offer greater personal security but are too expensive for most women, very few of whom can afford a car or can drive themselves.

The early interview data has painted an extremely gloomy picture of women’s mobility in Tunisia. The two research sites have indicated commonalities between rural areas and peri-urban settlements. Women are more reliant on public transport than men and thus more severely impacted by its inadequacies. They spend enormous amounts of time travelling what are often quite short distances. Transport is unpredictable and largely unscheduled. Places have to be fought for in buses and collective taxis, and the vehicles are often poorly maintained and unsafe. They are seriously over-crowded, leaving women vulnerable to men squeezing up against them, groping them, and worse. Public transport will not even service some residential areas where the roads are in too poor a condition or drivers themselves do not feel safe, leaving women to walk in unsafe and unlit locations. Informal barriers restrict women from working as drivers themselves, so women move in entirely male-controlled environments, making mobility beyond the immediate residential location a constantly stressful and intimidating project.

Blog post  following our project inception workshop in Tunis, February 2019, written by Hanen Keskes [Durham University], who organised the Tunis meeting.

Youth engagement and skills acquisition within Africa’s transport sector: promoting a gender agenda towards transitions into meaningful work

 At a time that young people – particularly young women – are regarded as insufficiently tapped human resources in Africa’s development story, they simultaneously experience social and economic exclusions that drive them into unemployment and poverty.

 Although there is now a profusion of work engaging with the informality of African cities, and growing concern about youth’s place within it, new thinking is required on urban mobility.  Many reviews highlight issues of youth exclusion and its gendered dimensions. However, transport continues to be an understudied facet of this exclusion. Indeed, young women are discriminated against widely with regards to access to safe spaces in cities. This is particularly evident with regard to their access and use of transport, which in turn affects their access to skills acquisition and employment across all sectors. For instance, Adamu observed the negative impacts of shari’a-related campaigns to stop northern Nigerian women riding commercial motorcycle-taxis on their mobility and activities.

 Discrimination against women is also a key feature of quality employment within the transport sector itself. The two elements are inter-related since women’s lack of visibility as workers in the transport sector contributes to male dominance of transport and travel operations as well as both perceived and real women’s safety. It also partly accounts for transport planning which is both gender blind and gender-biased. Getting young women into more meaningful, higher status employment in the transport sector, and into using transport modes more effectively, are crucial to addressing inequality (and the resulting social exclusion, poverty and diminished health of women). This objective requires relevant skills acquisition, at an early age, to enable women to break through such barriers. 

It is within this framework that Durham University launched the ESRC-funded Action Research project titled “Youth engagement and skills acquisition within Africa’s transport sector: promoting a gender agenda towards transitions into meaningful work.” The project’s core objective is to help disadvantaged girls and young women obtain improved access to transport (both as users and workers/employees) and in turn increase their opportunities for obtaining meaningful paid work.  

 This research focuses on young women living in peripheral locations of three major African city regions: Cape Town (South Africa), Abuja (Nigeria) and Tunis (Tunisia). Set in very diverse country contexts, these city regions are among the more dynamic parts of their respective national economies and hence continue to attract migration from young people seeking work. This city selection offers an opportunity to explore impacts on transport practices of three very different cultural, socio-economic and political environments. While each city region has relatively high employment potential, by comparison with other parts of their respective country, youth employment for the majority of those resident in the city peripheries (common location of recent migrants and low-income families) is typically in precarious, poorly paid, informal sector work. For young women, opportunities are particularly sparse and tend to revolve around petty trade, food processing and service activities such as hairdressing, plus agriculture in rural sites.

The wider project team, comprising researchers from Tunisia, Durham University, the University of Cape Town, Usmanu Danfodiyo University (Sokoto, Nigeria), and Transaid, met in Tunis for an inception meeting in February. The meeting served to kick off the 27-month project and agree on a timeline for activities.

 Currently, country research teams are setting out to understand the nature and scale of gender inequalities shaped by everyday transport sector practices and the implications for young women’s skills acquisition and employment prospects within and beyond the transport sector. In order to do so, two research sites will be selected in each city region, a peri-urban and a rural site, both connected to the city centre by public transport and employment. Ultimately, this research will inform pilot interventions, led by partner organization Transaid through training and capacity building, to develop young women’s skills as users and workers in the transport sector.

 A key early project activity is the training of six local young women from each country to equip them with the skills required to contribute to research efforts in their communities. These training workshops are planned for March in Tunis, March/April in Abuja, and April in Cape Town. This is in line with a co-production approach embedded in this project, which foregrounds young women’s voices, including through co-investigation.

 Whilst acknowledging the constraints of structural conditions, the project focuses on the agency of young women themselves, specifically in developing their own skills to maximise opportunities within that ecology and, through participation, to bring about change from below.

























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