Take five: Why safe transportation is vital for women and girls during the global pandemic


Marina Moscoso T Mendonça, Urban Management Specialist and Technical Director of Despacio. Photo: Women in Motion
Marina Moscoso T Mendonça, Urban Management Specialist and TechnicalDirector of Despacio. Photo: Women in Motion

Originally from Brazil, Marina Moscoso T Mendonça is an Urban Management Specialist and Technical Director of Despacio in Colombia, where she supervises projects promoting urban development and sustainable transport in Latin America. Marina is also the Operations Director for Women in Motion, an initiative focused on strengthening female leadership in the transport sector.

During COVID-19, social distancing and lockdown measures are affecting the mobility choices of women in Bogota and reinforcing patterns of gender inequality on, and around, public transport. UN Women is asking governments to ensure that mobility and transport measures developed during the pandemic are gender-responsive and to remove barriers to women and girls’ safe access to public transport. In this interview, Marina discusses the challenges and opportunities for safer mobility for women and girls.

Before COVID-19, what was your organization doing to create safe and inclusive transportation?

At Despacio.org and Women in Motion, we try to improve experiences for women in public spaces and on transportation, and increase their participation in the public transport sector, which is male-dominated in Colombia and around the world. Ensuring safety is a key priority to increase women’s mobility. Often, women fear sexual harassment, and this impacts their decisions about travel. For example, the time of day they will travel, clothes they choose to wear, the types of transportation they might use (if choice is available), and even whether to travel at all.

At Despacio, we have conducted research to understand women's travel experiences in Bogota. At Women in Motion, we created an Ibero-American network of women working in the transport sector and a virtual leadership programme to give women leaders in the transport sector the tools and knowledge they need to thrive in their careers.

What are the impacts of sexual harassment on women and girls using public transport in your city?

In Bogota, a study on sexual harassment in public spaces revealed that women survivors of sexual harassment in transit are often hyper-vigilant about safe transportation routes. They can suffer anxiety and other forms of distress because of sexual trauma. They may adopt different coping strategies, such as avoiding travel at certain times, travelling in groups, or avoiding travel altogether. The barriers that women face can affect their access to opportunities, impact their wellness and autonomy, and the overall development of cities.

How has COVID-19 impacted safe mobility of women in Bogota?

It is hard to tell because there has not been much research conducted locally. But we can understand some things based on emerging evidence from other cities. During social isolation periods, trips are normally of short distances, close to home, and due to concerns about social distancing on public transport, affordability and other circumstances, women may prefer walking. In terms of overall security, the streets are emptier and there are fewer bystanders, so a woman may feel less safe. In relation to road safety, we have seen an uptick in vehicular speeds, which increases the risk and severity of road traffic injuries. As women are the majority users of public transport, the recent reductions in services have disproportionately impacted them.

The recent policy brief on safe mobility for women and girls, published by UN Women, highlights some of these impacts on women’s mobility during the pandemic, and provides recommendations on how various stakeholders can help.

On the positive side, in many cities, the number of women using bikes and other sustainable transport options has increased. Bogota has implemented several measures to respond to the pandemic, including building 80 km of temporary bicycle lanes in important corridors of the city, to enable more women can access sustainable transport options like cycling. Local speed limits have been reduced to 50 km/h in most parts of the city, as recommended by the World Health Organization, protecting vulnerable road users. The city is also implementing Manzanas del Cuidado (Care Blocks) – public facilities located in low-income neighbourhoods that offer health services and foster well-being. This has brought services closer to women, reducing their need to travel long distances.

How have you had to adapt your services in light of COVID-19 restrictions and challenges?

Given the increase in virtual connections, our Female Leadership Programme has been able to reach a greater number of women in the transport sector and create a bigger network for support and mentoring. The programme strengthens the capacity of women leaders to recognize the obstacles women face in the transport sector, such as sexual harassment and gender stereotyping, and provides them with tools and knowledge to help them thrive in their careers. At Despacio, during the first months of the lockdown in April 2020, we supported an initiative in Bogota to rent electric bicycles to health workers, most of whom are women.

How are you working with decision-makers in your city?

The public transport sector plays a critical role in a city’s development, and we support their work in many ways. We conduct training for local government, analyze data and conduct non-traditional research. Our work helps decision-makers to design evidence-based strategies and public policy to create safer and more inclusive cities for all women and girls.