Thirty-year-old Shobha’s journey to work — from Iglur village near Chennapatna to a garment factory on Mysore Road — has, in the last five years, meant nearly three hours of travel each way. Her work hours, inclusive of travel by bus or van, are 6 a.m. to about 9 p.m.
Deepthi R., a software professional working in a firm on M.G. Road, spends nearly four hours on the road to and from work during peak hours. Whether or not she can get away from work “before the road turns unsafe for single women travellers” to reach her home on Kanakapura Road depends on how considerate her manager is, and not on the systemic guarantee of safe transport as entitlement.
The worlds of Shobha and Deepthi are far removed from each other in terms of their economic status and social milieu and the specific vulnerabilities these give rise to. As women, however, they share the everyday experience of going to work on a road fraught with dangers.
On the street
The street is where many forms of sexual violence against women — from the leer to rape — occur. Though Crime Records Bureau does not keep specific record of women abused on their way to work, many reported cases relate to violence faced while travelling.
The rape and murder of 24-year-old call centre employee Pratibha S. Murthy in 2005, as she travelled from home to work for night shift, highlighted the need for safe transport for women workers. This resulted in several big players in the IT/IT-E sectors putting in place measures to ensure safe transport for women who work late hours.
Government of Karnataka had, while amending Section 25 of the Karnataka Shops and Establishments Act in 2002 to allow women to work on night shifts, made “facilities of transport and security” mandatory. But it was only after unsafe roads claimed Pratibha that the system got going.
However, even today, travelling to work is risky for many women. While smaller IT/IT-E firms with few women employees still do not provide transport, safe transport is not even a demand for the vast majority of unorganised women workers at the lower end of the economic ladder.
Even as the labour force across the board is getting more feminised, two developments have made travel a crucial issue: the stretching of work hours to suit the demands of the global market and the stretching of the commute to work and back as cities have expanded.
Safety and career
This has led to another problem. If women choose to make the personal safety issue a condition of their employment, especially in the private sector, they may simply not get employment. “You have to either forgo security concerns or career ambitions,” says Deepthi. She has herself negotiated this by bringing more and more work home.
For Shobha, on the other hand, choosing not to travel to work is not an option. The agrarian crisis made farming unproductive, and she had to find work elsewhere to make ends meet.
But Shobha’s little triumph over the last couple of months is that women of the garment unit have bargained for and got a van to drop them back. This has not made travel time any less, as the van has to pick up women from many villages.
“At least we no longer have to deal with men in the bus falling over us or passing comments on everything, including the talcum powder on our faces,” she says.