Papua New Guinea – “Meri Seif” Women & Girls Safe Bus Transport System
Date: December 13, 2019
The pink and purple buses carrying women through the streets of Papua New Guinea’s two major cities are as bold in purpose as they are in color.
The buses launched in the capital city of Port Moresby in 2014 and expanded to Lae, the second-largest city in Papua New Guinea (PNG), in 2019. The women-only transportation program began exclusively as a free-to-ride service called Meri Seif (“Woman Safe”) and, in 2017, added a pay-to-ride service called M-Buses.
The two bus programs have ensured that some 170,000 women and girls annually ride safely to and from work and school each day. This is a momentous step forward for a country where, in 2017, more than 90 percent of women reported being sexually harassed or robbed of their daily earnings by men on public transportation.
“It’s a worldwide epidemic,” says Anastasia Loukaitou-Sideris, a professor of urban planning at UCLA, who conducts research on college students and their sexual harassment experiences in transit environments in 18 global cities. “Physical harassment—groping and touching—happens in crowded settings because men feel more emboldened. For many women, public transportation is their first #MeToo moment.”
Women-only transportation programs exist in more than a dozen countries. There are women-only subway cars in cities such as Rio de Janeiro, Cairo, and Dubai. Women-only compartments exist on trains in India, Japan, and Indonesia, among other Asian countries. Guatemala and Malaysia have also experimented with single-sex buses. More recently, women-only taxi services have emerged in New York, Paris, Grozny, and Lahore.
In PNG, which the Human Rights Watch describes as “one of the most dangerous places in the world to be a woman,” Meri Seif shines a persistent ray of hope.
“When the buses came, it showed us that there are people who are willing to help women and girls in the city,” says Joanna Oala, a member of the UN Women youth group Sanap Wantaim (“Stand Together”). “It gives us hope that change is happening.”
Nigel Mado, a young volunteer also in the Sanap Wantaim program, has seen a shift in female bus riders, which he attributes in part to Sanap Wantaim’s on-bus trainings about women’s rights and where to get help. “What the bus really does is give women a voice, an avenue in which they can express themselves and say, ‘We are not under men but equal,’ and it sort of changes the ideas and concepts in some men in part of the country.”
“I feel so safe when I get on the Meri Seif bus,” says Valerie Ulal, a university student in Port Moresby. “I can easily pull out my phone and listen to music and actually make a phone call. On the private buses [public motor vehicles (PMVs)], the thieves just walk on, and when they see ladies holding their bags, they just grab them or threaten [the women].”
The Road to Safety
In 2013, pastor Mike Field, then general manager of the Ginigoada (“Stand Strong”) Foundation, a job-training NGO in Port Moresby, could not bear the frustration of watching women wait patiently at rush hour to get on the public bus to work.
“Every morning I would see the young men forcing themselves into the buses. They would jump through the windows, and the young women and the older women would have little or no chance [getting a seat] at all,” he explains. “I found this really disconcerting, because at the Ginigoada Foundation we’re working hard to give training opportunities to these young women, and we try and get them to work, and then [we] get them a job, [but] they can’t get transport because these young men just force their way into the vehicles.”
Field suggested to Ginigoada board member Dave Conn that the foundation pilot a free, women-only bus program. Conn agreed and encouraged Field to approach Powes Parkop, governor of Port Moresby, to ask that the National Capital District (NCD) release one of its old buses to use for the pilot.
Parkop, a former human rights lawyer, donated five retired NCD buses. From these, Ginigoada cobbled together one roadworthy vehicle. UN Women PNG, a local NGO, provided the initial funding.
“Gender-based violence is a big problem in our country; in our city, too,” Parkop says. “But you can take only one step at a time. We cannot solve everything, but we absolutely have power and influence to change the dynamics on public transport instantly.”
From 2014 to mid-2019, the number of buses rose from 1 to 11, the number of routes from 1 to 6, and the number of riders from 21,000 to more than 600,000. The Meri Seif free-to-ride program also expanded, with two buses in Lae. The pilot was so successful that the Ginigoada Foundation started the M-Bus, a pay-to-ride program, to move the model toward financial sustainability.
“The trialing of the free Meri Seif buses was that it was intended to be a temporary measure,” Richelle Tickle, Pacific Women’s PNG country manager, explains, “to prove the value of this service as a commercial arrangement … and the value of taking security seriously on all public transport.”
As demand soared, the media spread word that Port Moresby needed more buses. The NCD donated two more; UN Women PNG, together with Pacific Women PNG, raised funds to purchase two additional air-conditioned buses; the Hertz car rental company in Port Moresby (whose managing director was on the Ginigoada board of trustees) donated two more; and the Ventura Bus Company in Melbourne, Australia, donated four.
“I think what made me put a lot of energy behind this program,” explains Andrew Cornwall, managing director of the Ventura Bus Company, “is that I’ve been to Port Moresby previously and understood how the people of Papua New Guinea helped the Australians [in World War II], and I just wanted to give back. It really got to me that women in this world are scared to go to work.”
This confluence of politics, programs, and people has made the women-only transportation a success. Rather than originating as the stand-alone idea of a single NGO, the bus programs complemented other efforts in the country to address women’s empowerment and gender-based violence.
The continuation of the women-only buses has been integral to other efforts. The buses helped Ginigoada Foundation trainees not only attend its program but also get to and from their subsequent jobs safely. Parkop had every incentive to help the program work, since his administration set out to end
gender-based violence and empower women economically to build businesses and credit. And for UN Women PNG, the bus program augmented their Safe Public Transport for Women and Children program.
“It’s about collective action,” says Brenda Andrias, a program specialist at UN Women PNG who focuses on safe public transport. “It’s about getting all the stakeholders who have some role to play in enhancing the safety of women and girls to make a stand.”
Driving Through the Patriarchy
An unexpected benefit of the program has been the hiring of 10 women drivers. With funds from the Canadian government, which Ginigoada approached with a $15,000 proposal to train women drivers, the foundation has trained close to 50 PNG women.
“I became a bus driver because in the city in Port Moresby, women are not safe to get around, so I decided that I would make a little bit of a difference in my community,” says Gola Momo, one of the new drivers.
The job, however, is far from perfect. “The biggest challenge,” says Momo, who does six runs a day, “is the male bus drivers [of the PMVs]. When we pull into the bus stops, they are very mean to us and don’t give us space to get in, and sometimes they scream abuse at us when we pick up the women.”
In response, UN Women trained more than 100 PMV drivers, crew members, and operators in 2018 about the importance of safe transport for women. The overall message to the drivers was clear: If you had kept women safe on your buses in the first place, the city would not need women-only transportation.
The future of PNG’s women-only transportation depends on many factors, from finances to social acceptance. While some signs point to continued growth—the NCD is donating four more buses, and a potential new donor is willing to add up to 25 buses for the Lae pilot—the program faces continued hostility from men, who have catapulted marbles through bus windows, threatened women drivers at knifepoint, and tried to force themselves aboard the buses. While no serious injuries have occurred—each bus has two male security guards—safe travel around Port Moresby remains elusive.
Sustainability is another long-term challenge. The Ginigoada Foundation, now overseeing the bus program, will phase out the original Meri Seif free-to-ride buses at the end of 2019 in both Port Moresby and Lae, and the pay-to-ride M-Buses will take over all routes. A shortfall of $50,000 per year exists between the cost of running the program (approximately $205,000 for drivers, maintenance, petrol, security, and marketing) and the income from fares (approximately $157,000). Pacific Women PNG currently covers this shortfall, but their funding will end in 2021.
Finally, an issue never far from the minds of those responsible for the program is the wish that the buses did not need to exist at all.
“There’s a certain irony, I know,” says Philip Priestley, the manager of the entire Ginigoada M-Bus fleet, “that at the same time we wish the buses didn’t exist, here we are, scrambling to get as many online as we can. But the truth is, we have a long way to go in PNG to combat gender-based violence, and until that is under control, maybe 30 years from now, we’ll keep doing what we need to do to keep women safe.”
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