Elizabeth Kinuthia has spent eight years working in Nairobi’s male-dominated public transportation sector, first as a conductor and then as a stage (or bus stop) attendant. She loves to help passengers; she goes out of her way to ensure the elderly safely navigate the city and has learned basic sign language to communicate with the hearing impaired.

But Kinuthia says unfavourable working conditions in the broader sector – such as sexual harassment, violence, gender discrimination, and the absence of formal contracts, health insurance and other social protection – make such jobs less attractive to women.

Kinuthia shared her story and insight during the Eastern Africa Women in Transportation Conference. Organized by the Flone Initiative, with support from SEI and other organizations, the conference was the first in the region to focus on women like Kinuthia, who are striving to make a difference in the public transportation sector.

The two-day conference was held at the University of Nairobi, and brought together public transport employees and employers, NGOs, researchers, and policy-makers to discuss how to create an inclusive public transport system. The conference highlighted key challenges, such as gender-based violence and discrimination; poorly planned infrastructure; and policies on protecting the rights of women and people with disabilities.

The conference’s findings are being used in SEI Africa’s Women and Transportation in East Africa project, which aims to narrow the knowledge gap by gathering evidence on current gender issues in urban public transport.

Elizabeth Kinuthia speaks about her experience as one of the few women working in Nairobi’s public transport sector. Photo: Flone Initiative.

Tackling barriers for women employees and passengers

Attracting and supporting more women to work in this male-dominated industry is crucial, and the conference included discussions on how to overcome gender barriers. Wanjiku Manyara, General Manager of the Petroleum Institute of East Africa, suggested that women can help each other climb the career ladder and aim for higher and more influential positions.

“Eliminating barriers that enable entry and progression of women can only be realized when more take up positions where they would be better placed to influence decisions for a conducive work environment and a transport system that works for everyone,” Manyara said.

Conference participants stage a play called Wamama wa Mathree, which offers a glimpse into the life of women working in the public transportation sector. Photo: Flone Initiative.

The system also struggles with inclusivity for passengers. Jane Kerubo shared the challenges she faces as a commuter with a physical disability. Illegal structures and street vendors often block pedestrian walking lanes and footbridges, preventing easy movement when she uses a wheelchair. Buses and mini-vans (matatus) often lack ramps, making it hard for her to board and exit from them.

To better navigate, Kerubo travels at non-peak hours, but this affects her business and the time she gets home.

Stephanie Aketch, the Regional Road Safety Manager at Humanity & Inclusion, emphasized the need for engineers and urban planners to consider the needs of vulnerable groups – such as people with disabilities, pregnant women and school-going children – when designing roads to enhance safety. Both public and private vehicles also need to better accommodate these groups, to improve their access to socio-economic activities and essential services, she said.

Nairobi City Residents including women rely heavily on public transport. Photo Credit: Caroline Njoki / SEI.

The role of research and policy in overcoming gender barriers

Rocio Diaz-Chavez, the SEI Africa Deputy Centre Director, also discussed ways to overcome gender barriers in transport during one of the conference’s panel sessions. She noted that effective gender intervention strategies should include: equal representation of women in the planning and designing of city infrastructure; the involvement of authorities, policy-makers and men in these discussions in order to see change; and the integration of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Rocio Diaz-Chavez, the SEI Africa Deputy Centre Director, speaks during the panel session on strategies for overcoming gender barriers in transport. Photo: Flone Initiative.

Diaz-Chavez also emphasized that gender-related issues in public transportation are still under-researched in the region – a knowledge gap that SEI is currently investigating through its project covering public transport in three East Africa cities namely Nairobi, Kampala and Dar es Salaam.

Nairobi Women Representative Esther Passaris similarly underscored the need for more research.

“There is need for civil society and researchers to engage with policy-makers to point out where gaps are and share information from evidence-based research,” she said. “This will help in [the] allocation of resources, development of relevant laws and policies and their implementation in the transport sector.”

Note: Co-author Caroline Wamaitha, a communications intern at SEI’s Africa Centre, is accredited as Caroline Njoki with the Media Council of Kenya.