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Passenger safety, sexual harassment and personal security

Passengers frequently have concerns about their safety when making journeys using IPT. These include concerns for the quality and roadworthiness of the vehicles they travel, the daily risk they face from being involved in road crashes from poor driver behaviour and operating practices of the drivers and workers and from the risk they face as passengers from theft and other crimes and sexual harassment and assault from staff and other passengers.  

Large numbers of passengers, mostly women, encounter sexual harassment on a daily basis when using public transport in cities across the world, including in Africa, regardless of whether they are served by informal or formal public transport operators. This level of everyday experience leads to a widespread fear amongst women for their personal security and informs their travel decisions in terms of how much they travel, what times they travel, where they travel and with whom they travel. As a result, this impacts upon wider aspects of women’s lives including which schools and colleges should they attend and what work opportunities they pursue.



Sub-Saharan Africa represents one of the worst performing regions for road crash fatalities (WHO, 2018) with 26.6 deaths per 100,000 population reported by the WHO in 2018. Deaths of occupants of vehicles makes up 40% of this significant death rate with, given the low level of private vehicle ownership, is made up of a substantial number of public transport passengers. With the exception of South Africa, all vehicles used in the IPT sector in Africa are used imports of vans, including general cargo vans that are converted for passenger use with windows and seats inserted. This results in a fleet that can vary considerably in age and degree of upkeep to ensure roadworthiness (consider this page for more information). This contributes to the real and valid concern for their own safety amongst IPT users and this is reflected in the findings amongst passengers surveyed across the TRANSITION case study cities.

Studies have repeatedly shown that sexual harassment on public transport is a widespread experience for women globally (FIA Foundation, 2016) and that it is as common a feature of cities, such as many across Africa, where informal transport makes up the majority of services available.

Overcrowded vehicles and public spaces are characteristics of IPT provision that allow touching, groping and other forms of harassment of women to occur unchecked.

Work by the FIA Foundation in their report, Safe and Sound [14], reported significant perceptions of insecurity within Cape Town from riding informal transport vehicles as well as walking to and waiting at bus stop for rides. Almost 70 per cent of women in a survey conducted in Egypt by the European Bank of Reconstruction and Development were dissuaded from using public transport to commute to work because of safety concerns [15]. These concerns were mostly a response to a high incidence of sexual harassment in formal Public Transport. Concerns of sexual harassment also extended to women workers in IPT. In Kenya, a study revealed that 76% of female informal transport workers have either experienced or witnessed sexual harassment at their place of work. [16]


Comparison of situations and perspectives from the TRANSITIONS cities

Passenger safety - Respondents to the TRANSITONS passenger opinion surveys reported different levels of fear of crashes from using IPT. They appeared to be clustered either at relatively low or high levels of perceived danger: at the lower end of the spectrum were Accra in Ghana, reporting that 12% of respondents were very worried of the risk of a crash, and Cape Town, where 18% of respondents reported being very worried by risk of a crash when travelling by informal public transport (with little difference between men and women in this regard). By contrast, 39% of respondents in Kumasi reported that they had a very high fear of road crashes. In Freetown this was as high as 55% and in Maputo, 73% of men and 81% of women were very worried about the accident risk.  The data from Kumasi, showed the greatest differentiation of opinion between men and women, with 48% of the females as against 33% of the males very worried about risk of an accident. In addition, many respondents reported concern about the condition of the vehicles. In Freetown, the majority of the respondents were unsatisfied with the poor conditions of these vehicles which makes them very worried about their safety. Additionally, more females than males were also worried (53.8%) about their safety while using the poda-podas.

Sexual harassment and personal security - The TRANSITIONS cities also reported varying degrees of passenger experience of sexual harassment and perceptions of personal security. These ranged from around 3% of respondents in Accra, 11% in Cape Town, 17% in Maputo and 20% in Freetown that reported experience of sexual harassment. By contrast Kumasi, 45% of all respondents, but over 56% of women, reported experience of sexual harassment whilst travelling by IPT.

The overall level of fear of personal security varied equally across the cities in a similar pattern. Survey respondents in Accra reported the lowest level of fear of personal security, where only 1% reported feeling that their personal security was very unsafe with no difference between men and women in that regard. In Cape Town only 11% said that they felt unsafe, with significantly more females feeling unsafe than males (40% more). Interestingly, even though Freetown had a relatively low level of reported sexual harassment (at 20%), 55% of respondents responded that they feel very unsafe regarding their personal security, with 57% of women compared to 52% of men reporting this to be the case. A similar pattern could be observed for Maputo, where perceptions of safety (with 74% of women and 66% of men feeling ‘very insecure’) was considerably higher than the incident rates. Conversely, around 19% of respondents participating in the survey reported being very fearful for their personal security in Kumasi, with even more men than women responding that they feel unsafe for their personal security, even though this was a city with reported high level of experience of sexual harassment by women passengers.

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Main findings and messages

Fear of users’ own safety from poor vehicle condition and unsafe driving behaviour was a clear finding from across the case study cities.

Data from the TRANSITIONS cities and from other research highlight the variation in experience of sexual harassment and the locally specific understanding and reality of harassment and the social practices of masking and hiding the reality of harassment by men and women as an unavoidable part of the everyday reality of urban life. There is a need for a clear identification and understanding of the experience of sexual harassment when using public transport at a local level.

There is also a need to recognise that sexual harassment and the fear for personal security that particularly women passengers encounter is across their whole journey and includes, walking to and from public transport, waiting for public transport and interchanging between different forms of public transport.

As a result, earlier research as part of the South African National Household Travel Survey in 2013 showed that, based on the NHTS database 2013, household heads were to a greater extent, very unsatisfied with personal security walking to and from public transport at 36% compared with 28% when waiting for the public transport vehicle and 28% whilst inside the public transport vehicle. As a result, integrating a focus on walking to/from and waiting for public transport is an important element of an authority’s response to sexual harassment in urban transport.

There is a need for action in this area across elements of urban public transport. There will need to be a multi-agency and multi-institutional response.

Initiatives building on interaction with and support to operators during the COVID pandemic in terms of training for staff and operators as part of a behaviour change programme may be directions to explore. 

Further resources

  • EBRD, 2016. Safe transport for all: Issues and operational lessons from the Egyptian National Railways.

  • FIA Foundation, 2016. Safe and sound: International research on women’s personal safety on public transport.

  • EMPOWER SHE-CAN tool: web-based tool for helping decision-makers tackle sexual harassment in sub-Saharan public transport



14. FIA Foundation, 2016. Safe and sound: International research on women’s personal safety on public transport.

15. EBRD, 2016. Safe transport for all: Issues and operational lessons from the Egyption National Railways.

16. FLONE, 2018. Report on gender equity assessment of Nairobi’s public minibus transport services. FLONE Initiative

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