Women on Wheels - year 2

A special report for the TFT Features Desk

Women on Wheels - year 2
While across the border, in India, women enjoy the freedom of riding their scooties and motorbikes with abandon, Pakistani women can only dream of mobility minus the threat of harassment and violence.

But Punjab’s Strategic Reforms Unit (SRU) is slowly attempting to transform female mobility in Pakistan by way of its rather ambitious Women on Wheels (WoW) campaign. Now in its second year, the initiative encourages women from all walks of life to reclaim public spaces by enrolling in free motorcycle trainings in Lahore, Multan, Faisalabad, Rawalpindi and Sargodha. So far the campaign has trained over 3,000 Pakistani women and continues to take in more applicants with the onset of the new year.

Recently, the initiative signed an MoU with Adnan Sarwar’s film, The Motorcycle Girl (starring Soha Ali Abro), in a bid to promote female emancipation and independence via self-reliance in modes of transportation. The much-anticipated production follows the story of a young girl’s bold motorcycle journey from Lahore to Khunjerab Pass. In fact, it so happens that Abro, too, received training at one of the SRU’s training centres in the country.
?Adnan Sarwar’s film, ‘The Motorcycle Girl’, starring Soha Ali Abro, follows the story of a young girl’s bold motorcycle journey from Lahore to Khunjerab Pass. Abro herself learned at one of the SRU’s training centres

Currently, the campaign is also accepting applications from women for its motorbike subsidy scheme in partnership with the Transport Department and the Bank of Punjab, where women in Punjab will be provided with over 3,000 pink customised motorbikes (CD-70 Dream Motorbikes) at subsidised rates through a transparent balloting process.

“The campaign’s main aim is women empowerment,” states Salman Sufi, the Director General of the SRU. “Women constitute 49 percent of Pakistan’s population yet they still have difficulty accessing public spaces. Their immobility is a major obstacle towards ensuring that they are equal contributors to their families and society. Our hope is to start a conversation about the importance of women reclaiming public spaces.”

Having received the Voices of Solidarity Award (which honours individuals for their work to eliminate violence against women) last year in New York, Sufi says that growing up his biggest role model was his mother. “As a child I remember travelling with my mother in a public transportation bus and witnessing the challenges she faced throughout the ordeal,” he recalls. “I knew then that this was a common occurrence. This motivated me to do something about the difficulties faced by Pakistan’s female population during the mere act of going from one place to another, and [WoW] is directly inspired by this.”

Salman Sufi

With a main focus on women’s rights in Pakistan, Sufi mentions a recent SRU-led initiative, the Violence Against Women Centres (VAWC) in Pakistan; the first of which was launched in Multan, last year in March.

“The centre operates 24-hour operational, all-women-run facilities which streamline the investigation-prosecution case flow process. It houses all justice delivery services under one roof, including the following: first aid, police reporting and investigation, prosecution, medical examination and treatment, collection of forensic and other evidence, psychological evaluation and counseling as well as post-trauma rehabilitation,” states Sufi. “Our aim through the VAWC initiative is to address issues such as low conviction rate for crimes involving Violence Against Women (VAW), disconnected evidence collection, a lack of sensitisation to gender-based violence issues, the passing of moral judgments and absenteeism of relevant personnel. To manage, establish and monitor further VAWCs, we have introduced a dedicated autonomous structure called the Punjab Women Protection Authority.”

But coming back to the WoW campaign, how long would it take for Pakistani women to feel confident enough to ride their motorbikes in public without any fear of street violence?

I don’t think there’s a quantifiable period of time,” Sufi responds pragmatically, “The important thing is that we take the first step. The campaign empowers women through the provision of free motorcycle trainings to be followed by the provision of subsidised customised motorbikes. Having trained more than 3,000 women to ride motorbikes is a significant step towards mobilising social change to positively affect women’s access to the public space. The very fact that more women will be out on the street sends a message that the tides are turning.”

But Sufi understands there’s a long way to go in terms of Pakistan’s patriarchal attitude towards female emancipation, however, he remains hopeful.

“Women are a significantly underestimated population in the country which means that there is so much potential to unlock,” he says, “We only need to give them the tools to succeed. I am certain that every effort – whether great or small – towards empowering our women will bring about tangible change in the long-run.”