The Meri Seif Bus service in Port Moresby Photo: UN Women/Marc Dozier

Vanuatu’s public transport system has many issues with two of the biggest concerns being the lack of regulation and public safety.

In 2014 there were 1,363 public vehicles registered at Customs Inland and Revenue and although the majority of drivers submitted their driving permit renewals, only 417 drivers paid the required fees.

This means that two thirds of bus drivers were driving without permits.

In 2016, it is unclear how many of the 800 bus drivers who are members of the Port Vila Efate Land Transport Authority (PVELTA) are driving without permits. Despite offering incentives such as fuel rebates and assistance if an accident occurs, PVELTA says that there are many bus drivers who have not applied for membership therefore the exact number of buses on the road is unknown. What we do know is that there is A LOT.

And yet when was the last time you jumped on a bus and the driver was a female?

Never?

According to the PVELTA, there are only two female bus drivers who have registered with the association and only one of them is currently working. You won’t see her driving the local routes either — she only works when a cruise ship is in port or if she is conducting a tour.

President of the PVELTA, Donald Satungia says that he believes that women choose not to work as bus drivers because the work is difficult and unsafe.

“Being a bus driver is one of the hardest jobs to have.

“It’s not an easy job for a woman.

“I have been a bus driver, you have to start work at 5 in the morning and finish late at night without any break.

“It’s painful for your back and it’s a dangerous job,” said Mr. Satungia.

“Who is going to protect a female driver if she drives at night?

“If women want to come and work as a bus driver, I would discourage them to work at night and to only work during the day.

“After work some men are drinking kava and smoking marijuana and a woman can’t protect herself.”

Harassment from public transport drivers have made the headlines several times this year but it seems that regardless of whether a woman is a passenger or driver of public transport, she is expected to accept that being violated by men is the norm.

In April a young woman from Tanna jumped off a bus to escape sexual harassment from a bus driver. She later died from injuries sustained from the fall.

The incident occurred not long after Vanuatu held a historic march against violence after the high profile kidnapping and assault of Florence Lengkon by public transport drivers.

Criticism of the victims were rife on social media with many questioning why a young girl was travelling alone at night (instead of questioning why a bus driver took advantage of one of his customers) and suggested that Florence deserved to get beaten (rather than accept that everyone is entitled to their own opinion and that violence is not the solution to an opinion you don’t agree with anyway).

Mr. Satungia says that although he welcomes women to join the public transport industry, he believes that the policies such as the recent launch of the National Gender Equality Policy is a foreign idea that has no place in Vanuatu and just causes problems.

“There are spaces for women. Look in town – the majority of workers are women,” said Mr. Satungia.

“We don’t need these kinds of policies because men and women are equal.

“The reason that women are not in higher positions such as in parliament is because their nature is soft and they aren’t strong enough to direct.”

Mr. Satungia further stated that if women are interested in becoming bus drivers, they must also remember that they have a family at home.

He said, “The strength of Vanuatu is when there is a home where the husband and wife do what God wants.

“The Bible says that women must submit to their husband and that is why He made men stronger than women. It’s nature. Man is the captain of the house. There cannot be two captains of the house.”

Unfortunately the issue of being harassed while travelling on public transport is not restricted to Vanuatu. Developed countries such as Australia have seen the establishment of businesses such as Shebah, which offers a ride sharing service that is run by women, for women, in response to reports of harassment and assault by male public transport drivers.

Critics have suggested that female ride-sharing initiatives such as Shebah is ‘sexist’ and ‘discriminatory’ and argues that it promotes inequality and ‘only furthers the divide between the sexes.’

Mr. Satungia agrees. “There should be no discrimination between men and women.

“We support unity, not division. If someone proposed this initiative of women driving buses and only carrying female passengers, I would never support it.”

But why not? Why couldn’t we have a ‘Pink Bus’ service in Vanuatu?

If women are told to accept that harassment from men is the norm, then why can’t we find an alternative solution to ensure our safety even if it means eliminating men from our space through a female-only bus service?

At the same time, wouldn’t it also be a good opportunity to ratify the National Gender Equality Policy? The mission of the policy is to promote equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities among men and women across all sectors and levels of society and to eliminate all forms of discrimination and violence against women and girls.

What better way to start implementing the policy than in a male-dominated industry that is renown for it’s second-class treatment of women? It will not only ease the safety concerns of women nation-wide but it was also provide skills in a sector that is predominately reserved for men.

In her final appearance in this week’s Coffee and Controversy, Tess Newton Cain from TNC Consulting recalled how two years ago the United Nations wanted to help women being harassed on public transport in Papua New Guinea by offering a ‘Safe Meri’ bus that would be just for women and children and it would be free. But she criticized the ‘hand-out’ rather than ‘hand-up’ approach and questioned why the service was free.

According to Ms. Newton Cain, Port Moresby has now ended up with two second-hand buses from Brisbane that have been difficult to maintain due to high costs and a lack of spare parts. They are campaigning for a new bus and are going to start charging bus fares as well.

If we could learn from our Pacific counterparts, we can adapt the ‘Safe Meri’ concept in Vanuatu but with slight adjustments. Instead of having a male driver and male security guard like the ‘Safe Meri’ buses have, we would have strictly female drivers.

And the service wouldn’t be free – it would be a standard fare with potentially designated routes, particularly at night, to ensure a long-term solution to promote equitable access to economic and educational opportunities.

Until men start to understand that harassment is not acceptable and that women have every right to feel safe when they are travelling, we need to find a solution. And it seems that if men are the problem, then maybe women-only spaces are the solution.

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