Transport as an Issue for Women in the Pacific

Many of the key gender issues relating to the transport sector in the Pacific region – different travel needs of women from those of men, safety requirements, access to economic opportunities – are the same experienced by women across the world. Contexts may differ from that of Pacific Island nations beset by geographical, as well as socio-cultural challenges, however many issues are in common. Even within countries, transport needs vary greatly from a rural context to urban or peri-urban environments, as well as intra-national differences within island nations.

 – Author: Kim Titcombe. Independent consultant based in Europe and in Australia, specialized in the area of gender and development

This article is a commented extract from the Review of Gender and Infrastructure (2016) prepared for the Pacific Region Infrastructure Facility, a multi-partner coordination, research and technical assistance facility for improved infrastructure in the Pacific. Reproduced with consent from PRIF Secretariat (Sydney).

A few words about the problématique of PICs

The vulnerability of small island countries, many of which are PICs, as you would know, is a recurring theme in international fora  (e.g. UNCTAD, Commonwealth Secretariat, HLCP Working Group on Climate Change and participating UN agencies). The vulnerability angle focuses on the 2 main areas of climatic and economic vulnerability, compounded by isolation (resulting in high transportation costs for goods, high transport costs within island nations for people and goods etc) .

In examining the challenges of isolation and high cost,  infrequent transport services, whilst affecting most islanders in some way,  women tend to face more difficulties than men in overcoming these challenges for reasons outlined in my article. The other main gender issue in the PICs, that applies not just to gender and transport, is the still very great sway that “custom law” holds. Not always officially acknowledged. Not all PICs are CEDAW signatories, but even in the case of those countries that are, custom law, and the practices it dictates, often prevail  (decision-making, access to resources, inheritance etc) over formal institutions.

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Gender inequality can prevent women from benefiting from transport infrastructure

It has been well illustrated in the literature[1] that gender roles shape women’s needs for transport and access to markets, to services and for gaining employment. In the Pacific, women are the primary producers of food and therefore need physical access to markets for selling produce; as well as affordable and safe transport for employment in towns, transport for taking themselves and their children to health services and for taking their children to school. Even so, in the Pacific as elsewhere, evidence shows that women travel less frequently by vehicle than men.

Why should this be so when the need to get about is so apparent? Gendered hierarchies, established by social and cultural norms, for starters are known to restrict women’s access to a household vehicle (motorized or non-motorized) where one is available, as a form of competition over access to resources; moreover, gendered hierarchies may serve to de-prioritize a woman’s position within the household for access to cash needed for shared transport for whatever purpose of travel. Greater understanding on the dynamics of household decision-making with respect to resource allocation and the positioning of the individual may be provided by further development and application of the Individual Deprivation Measure[2].

Importantly, women are often unable to benefit from improved transport infrastructure, such as road development or upgrades, when services are not similarly upgraded and tailored to meet women’s needs with regard to timetables, placement of bus stops and shelters, affordable fare structures and so on.

At least three significant barriers that fuel gender inequalities can be addressed through developing appropriate infrastructure; namely, (1) women’s time scarcity, (2) exclusion from many economic opportunities; and (3) lower representation in decision making arenas.

Making women part of the planning process in the transport sector can go a long way to tip the balance towards equity of outcomes in transport investments.

The Pacific context

Whilst women in the Pacific share many of the challenges and mobility constraints with women all over the world, one distinctive feature of gender challenges in the transport sector in Pacific Island countries is the widespread use of water-based transport. In the Pacific, this mode offers both opportunities and challenges for generating either positive or negative impacts on women. Where publicly provided, or shared, transport services are not available and households are forced to rely on their own private means, men typically enjoy priority access, as discussed above. Water transport, however, should, a priori, differ.

Theoretically, water transport should be more gender ‘equitable’ in outcomes in terms of access for women and men, since this mode is overwhelmingly based on inter-island shared transport, rather than private (an exception of course are vessels for commercial fishing use), particularly for the purpose of travel to markets or health facilities, or dealing with local authorities (business registration and operating permits), formal financial institutions, and other formal institutional access (such as legal assistance).

Water transport, as a transport sub-sector of great importance to Pacific island nations, raises important concerns for women, however, about safety in waiting areas for boarding or transfers, as well as women’s specific needs for travel with merchandise or relatives in care. With women’s specific needs in water transport unheeded, there is a resulting gender bias towards male passengers in this sector.

Looking at other modes of transport, it has also been empirically observed in the Pacific context that women experience limited power to negotiate accessible transport. In Vanuatu, for example, a rural road development initiative resulted in increased numbers of vehicles, but women were not able to share in the benefits of obtaining drivers’ licenses, buying vehicles or establishing transport businesses due to economic limitations and cultural bias. Men, therefore, were the main beneficiaries of increased transport-related income opportunities, although this was undoubtedly an unintended biased outcome.[3]


Getting the design right from the beginning

Even where women are denied access to motorized forms of transport (either due to socio-cultural restrictions on usage, or, simply socio-economic deprivation) women can still benefit from infrastructure improvements if their needs are taken into account, and incorporated already at the concept stage, for example, in roads. Road design must incorporate features to accommodate users of non-motorized transport, as well as for pedestrians, since women are forced to walk more than men and often relegated to the unsafe margins of the road (with loads and children). Adequate, and properly formed, road shoulders, not only for safety, but also for flood prevention, are also important features.

Where women are targeted consumers as passengers, the design of buses or waiting areas for buses or shared taxis requires consideration for safety concerns above all, but also in terms of practical aspects, such as vehicle design, allowing sufficient space for carrying goods to market (on roof or within vehicle).

Maximizing safety for women, whether for travel by bus or boat, requires the inclusion of simple, but important, gender-sensitive elements in the design, such as lighting in waiting areas. In the Pacific Islands context, where inter-island travel frequently incurs overnight travel, secure and separate facilities (sleeping and sanitary) for women on board and in transit locations must be provided.


Employment and other economic empowerment opportunities linked to transport

Apart from making it possible for women to take up employment away from home, transport is important for women’s economic empowerment in a number of ways. The transport sector can offer significant opportunity through works employment, either in construction or in maintenance. Successful implementation of this practice has been demonstrated in diverse regions of the world such as in Nepal and India, as well as in the Pacific, such as in the Solomon Islands. It has been found by the World Bank, however, that the level of women’s participation in labour-based road works varies according to the road category, with typically community road projects employing a higher number of women than district or trunk roads.[4]

There are also under-realized areas of employment opportunities for women in the form of drivers or fare collectors enabled through support from vocational training. Role models breaking through socio-cultural barriers are important here. Administrative or managerial levels of employment in transport companies, agencies and ministries are vastly underexplored opportunities that show promise with targeted training and mentoring.


Informal livelihoods are also shaped by transport infrastructure

Informal livelihoods are often an extension of informal settlements where virtually no employment opportunities exist for women in the formal labour market. Often removed from their rural base, urban migrant women are forced to find income generating opportunities for their survival.

Informal livelihoods, such as setting up microenterprises, generally represent a significant form of income generation for women in the Pacific. Stalls at markets, or informal vending beside roads, or on pedestrian walkways can be forms of informal livelihoods within formal urban structures. Additionally there are informal microenterprise activities operating along the perimeters of informal settlements. Infrastructure for informal livelihoods generally does not meet women’s needs or provide any assurances on occupational health and safety requirements that would be enjoyed by workers in the formal sector.

Through initiatives, such as the UN Women Markets for Change Program currently being carried out in a number of Pacific Islands countries[5], the need for infrastructure in markets and other informal workplaces has been recognized raising issues such as safe and affordable transportation (as well as provision of decent water and sanitation in market facilities, and women’s specific needs such as child-care and on site financial facilities).


Informal settlements and urban transport

Whilst there has been a significant increase in rural to urban migration in the Pacific over the past decade (particularly in Fiji, Kiribati and RMI), rural communities still account for a significant proportion of the population. With a largely rural voter base in most Pacific countries, transport infrastructure projects tend to focus on linkages for rural communities. Unlike in much of South Asia or South East Asia, urban and semi-urban transport planning in Pacific Islands therefore tends not to be a high priority for funding.

Moreover, the rise in urban populations is overwhelmingly the result of an unplanned ‘urban drift’ occurring across the Pacific, resulting in high growth rates in informal settlements. In the Solomon Islands, for example, the share of informal settlements as part of the urban area of Honiara is estimated at 34%, with an annual growth rate of 26%. In Port Moresby, in Papua New Guinea, the growth rate in informal settlements has been estimated at 7.8% per year or twice the growth rate of Port Moresby as a whole.[6]

With informal settlements off the urban planners’ radar, these areas do not benefit from the planned provision of infrastructure services and residents often fare more poorly than their rural relatives. Transport, along with other infrastructure components, is generally totally absent, until private operators step in, with a view only to profit maximization, with disregard for safety or meeting women’s particular transport needs.


Where are the women in the planning process?

Why is it that Pacific women are often unable to substantively participate in planning, prioritizing, and designing transport infrastructure projects when such developments have a potentially significant impact on women’s lives? Women’s adequate and substantive participation in consultative processes has been seen to improve the design elements that can ultimately benefit women, but also it has been shown that adequate female representation in decision-making in planning and management of transport projects also improves sustainability of such projects.

Institutionally, women are under-represented at all levels of professional and technical areas in infrastructure sectors and formal structures in the Pacific which makes it imperative to advance formal participation and provide for adequate representation of women’s viewpoints. It can be observed that planning teams and project managers implementing infrastructure projects often lack experience and training in order to be able to identify suitable gender entry points for introduction into transport projects. This is even more challenging when such gender elements have not been specified at the outset of the project.

Awareness-raising exercises on gender mainstreaming, targeted at transport planners and project managers of donor agencies, implementing bodies or at contractors, are an important part of addressing this shortcoming. There is also a need for awareness to be ‘refreshed’ regularly to take account of staff turnover and shifting focus of national priorities in partner governments.

In conclusion, at least three significant barriers that fuel gender inequalities can be addressed through developing appropriate infrastructure; namely, women’s time scarcity, exclusion from many economic opportunities; and lower representation in decision making arenas.[7] Making women part of the planning process in the transport sector can go a long way to tip the balance towards equity of outcomes in transport investments.

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Annex: What is a Pacific Island Country?

Thirteen Pacific Island Countries (PICs) are PRIF (Pacific Regional Infrastructure Facility) partner countries – Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, Niue, Palau, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu, and Vanuatu (thus, eligible to benefit from support from PRIF multi-donor facility).

Beyond the PRIF facility, there is a regional grouping known as the Pacific Islands Forum (HQ Suva, Fiji)  – a political grouping of 16 independent and self-governing states. Members are:  Australia, Cook Islands, Federated States of Micronesia, Fiji, Kiribati, Nauru, New Zealand, Niue, Palau, Papua New Guinea, Republic of Marshall Islands, Samoa, Solomon Islands, Tonga, Tuvalu and Vanuatu.   Note: the italics in this list highlight those Pacific Islands Forum members ineligible for PRIF assistance.

The French territories have “associate member “ status. There are others (like Wallis and Futuna, Timor Leste) who only have observer status in the Forum.

Generally speaking, when referring to “PICs”  in development dialogue,  14 countries are considered to make up the group – this includes Papua New Guinea, but excludes Australia and New Zealand. Terms are used loosely in discussions beyond the context of strict membership definitions.

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About the author:

Kim Titcombe works as an independent consultant based in Europe and in Australia, specialized in the area of gender and development. Having completed studies in Australia, France and Switzerland as an economist, the focal areas of her research today are gender and infrastructure, gender and international trade and women’s economic empowerment. She approaches gender as a cross-cutting theme in development programs in the areas in which she works. She has a particular interest in the development challenges of small island countries, having worked in the Pacific as well as the Caribbean regions.




[1] See for example: J. Babinard, & K.Scott (2009) What Do Existing Household Surveys Tell us about Gender and Transport in Developing Countries? Proceedings on the 4th International Conference on Women’s Issues in Transportation, TRB;  T. Cresswell & T. P. Uteng (eds) (2008) Gendered Mobilities; P. Fernando & G. Porter (eds) (2002) Balancing the Load; K. Kusakabe (ed.) (2012) Gender ,Roads and Mobility in Asia; C.Moser (1993) Gender Planning and Development: Theory, Practice and Training; Rosenbloom, Sandra (2004) Research on Women’s Issues in Transportation, TRB

[2] IDM has already been piloted in Fiji as a measure applied at the individual rather than household level.

[3] Unpublished paper – Australian Government, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (2014). Vanuatu Transport Sector Support Program: Socio-economic and Gender Impact Study Year 1 Results

[4]      World Bank (2012a), An Update on Gender Mainstreaming in Transport and Recent Good Practice, FY10-13


Under implementation in Fiji, Solomon Islands and Vanuatu

[6]      S.Chand & C. Yala (2008) Informal land systems within urban settlements in Honiara and Port Moresby, in Australian Agency for International Development (2008). Making land work: Vol 2. Case studies on customary land and development in the Pacific

[7] Making Infrastructure Work for Women and Men: A Review of World Bank Infrastructure Projects, 1995-2009, World Bank, 2010

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Supporting References and Tools:

An open, self-organized multi-media toolset and extension of the original Gatnet Dgroups site (2004). Designed to complement, work in parallel with and not as a substitute for the original listserv.

Over the last 13 years this open collaborative program has slowly pieced together an interesting set of tools and reporting media in support of the Women, Transport and Leadership (WTL) initiative.  Here is how the toolset looks as of this date.

* Questions/comments to volunteer admin Eric Britton at | Skype newmobility  |  +336 5088 0787

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About the editor:

Eric Britton
13, rue Pasteur. Courbevoie 92400 France

Bio: Founding editor of World Streets (1988), Eric Britton is an American political scientist, teacher, occasional consultant, and sustainability activist who has observed, learned, taught and worked on missions and advisory assignments on all continents. In the autumn of 2019, he committed his remaining life work to the challenges of aggressively countering climate change and specifically greenhouse gas emissions emanating from the mobility sector. He is not worried about running out of work. Further background and updates: @ericbritton | | #fekbritton | | and | Contact: | +336 508 80787 (Also WhatApp) | Skype: newmobility.)

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