Why invest in infrastructure and services that work for women

Published on Tuesday, 05 March 2013

Published by Sonomi Tanaka on Tuesday, 05 March 2013

Written by Sonomi Tanaka, Lead Gender Specialist

When I was a student, I spent two and a half hours in hellish commuter trains each day as a Tokyo suburbanite. Being a teenager in a manga-like school uniform, I was often a target of groping, eve-teasing, stalking, and even “flashing” on the streets, in the trains, and at the stations. My frequent reporting at the station offices fell on deaf ears and had no results. I was not alone – many other women and girls shared similar experiences. 

Decades passed. Today Japan is a different place. Such acts are considered crimes. There are many coordinated interventions involving law enforcement, public offices, private sector and non-profit organizations to provide women with safe, secure and responsive transport services. Commuter trains have women-only carriages during rush hours. Focus group discussions are held with women users to formulate the designs of public toilets. Railway and bus companies continue to advance their carriage designs to make travel with prams safer and more comfortable. But it took Japan more than 20 years to finally take actions, primarily because it could no longer ignore women as contributors in the labor market and reproducers of the next generation (particularly given the dangerously low fertility rate). 

For over 10 years that I’ve been working in ADB as a gender specialist, I have met hundreds of women across Asia and the Pacific region whose needs for functioning and affordable infrastructure and the services – urban or rural – are urgent and acute. It is a matter of their daily survival. 

In urban areas, women’s mobility is often constrained due to lack of regular, safe and affordable public transportation to go to work and markets, access social services, and engage in other activities. Women are disproportionately represented among pedestrians. Decent sidewalks are hard to come by in Asian cities. Urinary tract infections are common among women living in urban slums as their toilets are often too dangerous to reach. There are a few glimpses of hope in cities like Manila and Dhaka that have introduced women-only carriages on commuter trains and busses. Other cities offer better lighting on streets and stations, safe toilets for women in public spaces and urban slums, safe sidewalks for pedestrians, and private corners for breast-feeding and other purposes in public areas. But examples are few and far between and more needs to be done.

What about other types of infrastructure beyond transport and urban services?

In low-income countries in Asia and the Pacific, 30% of the rural population still lack access to safe drinking water and 68% have no access to electricity. Despite improvements, rural access roads to markets, schools, and hospitals are still insufficient in many areas. The burden of insufficient and inadequate basic infrastructure disproportionately falls on women and girls who typically spend hours in drudgery work–collecting and transporting water, firewood, and other basic goods. Women’s “time poverty” is a critical concern as women juggle to meet both their domestic and economic roles. Time savings through improved basic infrastructure and affordable technology (such as clean cook stoves, equipment to ease head-loading) will release women for more productive income-earning activities, meeting community responsibilities and for much deserved leisure. 

Investments are needed in basic infrastructure – rural roads, water supply and sanitation, electrification, safe affordable public transport systems, better lighting of streets and settlements. Making infrastructure work better for women is a critical step in the empowerment of women.