A bus or taxi ride in Jamaica can be very risky. Forget about dark parking lots and lonely, dark stretches of roads, the island’s buses and taxis, whether packed beyond capacity or filled with the prescribed numbers of commuters, are not as safe as they should be. Grown women get fondled and sometimes raped. Young girls are exposed to inappropriate music and video content and are even encouraged to engage in some sexual acts while being transported in public passenger vehicles to and from school.
A few years ago a lot of media attention was focused on the phenomenon of ‘lapping’ where girls were sometimes forced to sit in boys’ laps in some buses and refused entry unless they agreed to comply. Then it emerged that not only were they sitting in laps, some days were reserved as ‘no panty’ days, when the girls, without underwear, sat on the boys’ laps and even engaged in sexual acts during the bus ride. The media attention raised awareness on the issue and since then, a number of initiatives have been put in place to help stem the tide of wanton behaviour on buses.
Recently, the Bureau of Women’s Affairs hosted a one-day workshop in Kingston aimed at creating safer cities for women and girls and decreasing the level of gender based violence women experience on Jamaica’s roads.
Acting Executive Director of the Bureau, Faith Webster, said the workshop was geared towards sensitizing personnel within the public transport system and other relevant stakeholders, about what can and should be done to make the island’s cities safer for our women and girls.
“In keeping with the Bureau’s mandate, we are bringing key stakeholders together to dialogue on this issue and to see how we can work together to put intervention strategies in place,” she told Panos Caribbean at the workshop which was attended by representatives from the public transport system, state agencies for children, members of the police force, church leaders, school community, concerned citizens and women’s NGOs.
Two teenaged girls who attended, shared their experience of commuting on public passenger buses. One recounted witnessing a male passenger attempting to sexually harass a female passenger in a crowded bus.
“The lady was in a short skirt,” the high school student recalled. “When I saw a man who was in the bus take out a part of him that should remain private. The woman had her back turned and had no idea what was going on, luckily, the bus swerved and people shifted and he didn’t bother to go through with it.”
These are sometimes daily scenes and experiences that young people have to live with. Doreen Billings, founder of Mother-in-Crisis, a Non-Governmental Organization, (NGO) which began in 2003 and aims to assist women to cope with their parental responsibilities, operates a Mother Patrol component to the programme which began in 2006.
Thirty-five mothers are assigned to several buses in the capital city, as well as adjoining Portmore and Spanish Town. The Mother Patrollers travel on the buses and monitor the students, observing how they behave. They also visit various hideouts and popular spots where students go after school and using mobile phones donated by Cable & Wireless, they report incidents of concern they observe to the group and the relevant authorities. The mothers also visit several schools and P.T.A meetings.
A representative from the Ministry of Transport and Works, Georgette Wright, explained the ministry’s role in ensuring that the public transport sector is user friendly to females.
“The ministry has a key role to play in reducing gender violence on public transportation,” she noted, before detailing the ministry’s total revamping and modernization of the transportation system which could best be described as chaotic in the ‘lick shot driver’ era of the late 1980s.
“Before 1995, the transportation system descended into chaos, there was total non-regulation,” she explained.
She said the transportation system was then modernized and a Transport Policy introduced in 2007 which sought to eliminate gender violence. She said the five transport agencies across the island, the Island Traffic Authority, the Road Safety Unit, the Transport Authority, the Jamaica Urban Transit Company, JUTC (in Kingston) and the Montego Bay Metro, play different roles in ensuring that the experience of commuters are comfortable and safe while using the public transportation system. The Montego Bay Metro for example has a dedicated school bus service.
Adams says extensive infrastructural development including the recently opened transportation centre in Half Way Tree, the one under construction in downtown Kingston and others in various parts of the island have made the transportation system less burdensome for commuters.
Wright said improvements to the island’s road networks was also a plus as well as the JUTC Smart Card which is a cashless payment system for using the buses and which aims to reduce incidents of robberies to both the public and the bus crews, a large percentage of whom are women.
“The new bus facilities will have shopping and other amenities and will be monitored by surveillance cameras and we are working on having a fully commissioned vehicle locater system for our buses as well as publish route timetables by January 2009,” she explained.
Novelette Adams, of the Transport Authority, admitted that the authority faces challenges in monitoring buses and taxis in the public transportation system.
“We know that there is a problem with lewd music and videos on some buses, but despite action to remove these instruments, they are replaced. It is a challenge to constantly monitor these operators and we depend on Route Taxi Associations as a control mechanism. However, we require public corporation in reporting taxis that violate operation guidelines,” she stated. Head of the Portmore Taxi Association, Wycliffe Addison, who should have presented at the workshop, did not attend.
Adams says the Authority carries out investigations which prevent people with criminal records from operating taxis and the regulations for operators and their crews to wear uniforms and badges are measures aimed at making the system safer. But she admitted that these are sometimes not adhered to.
“The Authority has toll free lines for complaints, and carries out public education mainly in schools – teaching children how they can safeguard themselves and we plan to use mass media more this year to educate the public on these issues,” she noted.
Adams says the Authority is lobbying for amendments to existing legislation which would allow route inspectors to issue traffic tickets in addition to the police. This would require the payments of fines for breach of road traffic regulations instead of court appearances. In addition, the Authority will be implementing colour coding for taxis both on the bodies of vehicles as well as license plates which would make them more easily identifiable based on the region in which they are licensed to operate in.
Webster made the crucial link between sexual violence against women and some psychological problems – such as promiscuity and said that women should not be subjected to any kind of abuse while using the public transportation system.
“The workshop is the first step in stronger collaboration amongst all the relevant entities and to try to see how we can all work together on these issues that affect women on our roads in terms of policy legislation and practical, workable solutions,” she stated.