The link between footbridges & women

Written by: Abbie Noriega, Vice President of Evaluation

The first time I crossed a footbridge was in April of 2014. That’s not actually true, of course; before that, I’d crossed hundreds, maybe thousands of footbridges, but that day in April was the first time I had any sort of awareness about what it meant to be crossing a footbridge.

suspended bridge over river

It was La Chambre, a 59-meter suspended footbridge that crossed the River Bouyaja, just north of Hinche in Haiti’s Centre Department. It was around noon on a Sunday, and it was busy. Dozens of people crossed in the hour or so that we were there, coming from church or visiting friends or family, moving cows or goats to new grazing areas, hauling harvested crops for the next day’s market, or collecting water for cooking and washing. I had the same epiphany that nearly everyone does the first time they cross a B2P footbridge, which is that until that moment, I’d taken every bridge I’d ever crossed for granted, and that bridges are perhaps the most singularly important component of transportation infrastructure.

I was hooked on bridges from that moment – but that’s not what this story is about.

In the same moment, I had the epiphany that in transportation, like virtually everything else in our world, gender matters.

The women crossing the bridge were almost never empty-handed. They were wearing babies or ushering children, herding animals, carrying loads of crops or clothes or household goods, or shouldering jerrycans of water. We visited three more bridges on that trip, and I’ve walked across dozens of B2P footbridges since, and the story has always been the same: for women, who generally bear the burden of caring for children and the household in addition to generating income, the stakes are higher, and pedestrian transportation infrastructure has an obvious and profound influence on their daily lives.

As it turns out, this influence is well-documented. A number of reports have noted that women have more complex travel patterns, and take on a much greater proportion of travel in service of the household.1,2,3,4 Overall, women take on 80% of the total time cost of transportation.5 Rural transportation surveys in Ghana, Tanzania, and Zambia have shown that women carry about four times the volume and spend three times as much time on transport activities.6 A study of women transporting fuel on foot in Ethiopia reported that the average woman carried 36.2 kilograms (or just under 80 pounds), and that 17% of women carried loads heavier than their own body weight.7

Transportation access in general, and footbridges specifically, also have a direct influence on the economic opportunities available to rural women. Globally, across countries of all income levels, just 50% of women participate in the labor market, compared with 77% of men, and this figure tends to be even lower in lower-income economies and in rural areas, where women may take on a much greater share of subsistence agriculture and unpaid care work.9 In a study conducted on B2P footbridges in rural Nicaragua, households in communities that received a footbridge saw a 59% increase in women entering the labor market, compared to communities that did not.10 Even in regions where rivers flood only seasonally, footbridges create a reliable link to labor markets and eliminate the risk that a flooded river will prevent someone from reaching a job. For women, footbridges create new choices for how they invest in their families and their futures. In the past 10 years, the body of literature related to gender equity and transport has grown significantly, as development practitioners and policy makers have come to understand that they are closely linked.

Pregnancy, child-birth and childcare add another, more urgent dimension to the relationship between women and transport. Rivers are a significant obstacle for rural women requiring maternal, postpartum, or neonatal care, or women traveling with young children or escorting older children to school, and for community health workers that provide care to mothers and young children.8 Every minute of every day, at least one woman dies as a result of complications of pregnancy and childbirth, and 99% of those deaths occur in lower-income nations.8

The World Bank estimates that more than 75% of maternal deaths could be prevented by timely access to essential childbirth-related care.

Though mortality rates for children under five have decreased globally, approximately 10.6 million children die each year before reaching their fifth birthday. Access to skilled care is critical during pregnancy and early childhood, and while footbridges are not a comprehensive solution to accessing adequate care, they are vital to rural communities that lack hospitals or health centers.

In April of 2016, exactly two years to the day after crossing the La Chambre bridge in Haiti, I delivered my first child. My labor was long and my delivery was difficult and required a late transfer from a birth center to a hospital, and in the days following, I thought a lot about how easy it was to travel to get the care I needed in that moment. Exactly two years, six months, and one day after that I delivered my second child, and even in the high desert of Denver, I crossed two bridges to reach the midwife that guided me through another difficult birth. Because I had access to skilled care, my story is a happy one; despite some complications, I am alive and healthy, and so are my children.

I encounter lots of happy stories in my work. Last month, while testing surveys at a footbridge in Rwanda, I met several women taking their infants to be immunized at the nearest health center, which was several kilometers away and across the river from their homes. It had rained the night before and the river was deep and moving fast, and most women were carrying children under six months old, and a few were just weeks postpartum. The health center had a limited window for immunizations, and the Nyirakibehe bridge made it possible for women in nearby communities to provide that fundamental care to their new babies.

suspension bridge, green Rwanda countryside

Any member of our staff could share a similar story, and women in any of the hundreds of communities connected by a B2P footbridge could share similar experiences, but the reality is that we have a lot of work to do. It is likely that around a billion people worldwide lack adequate transportation access, and in Rwanda alone, we estimate that there are well over a million people in need of footbridges. As we work with communities and governments to address this problem, gender, and the ways in which transportation access is so important to women, must be an essential component of our efforts, from how we evaluate the impact of our work, to the active inclusion of women at every level and in every department of our organization and in the planning process for each new footbridge.

For me, it is personal, and my personal experience is bolstered by the growing evidence that women and transport are inextricably linked, and if we care about one, we must care deeply about both.

References

    1. Bryceson, D.F., & Howe, J. (1993). Rural Household Transport in Africa: Reducing the Burden on Women? World Development, 21, 1715-1728.
    2. Starkey, P. & Hine, J. (2014). Poverty and sustainable transport: How transport affects poor people with implications for poverty reduction. UN Habitat, Overseas Development Institute, and Partnership for Sustainable Low Carbon Transport publication.
    3. Blackden, C.M. & Wodon, Q. (2006). Gender, time use, and poverty in sub-Saharan, World Bank Working Paper No. 73. World Bank, Washington, D.C.
    4. Porter, G. (2002). Living in a Walking World: Rural Mobility and Social Equity Issues in Sub-Saharan Africa. World Development, 30, 285-300.
    5. Roberts, P., Shyam, K.C., & Cordula, R. (2006). Rural Access Index: A Key Development Indicator. Transport Paper Series No. TP-10. World Bank, Washington, D.C.
    6. Malmberg-Calvo, C. (1994). Case study on the role of women in rural transport: access of women to domestic facilities. World Bank Working Paper No. 27127. World Bank, Washington, D.C.
    7. Haile, F. (1989). Women Fuelwood Carriers and the Supply of Household Energy in Addis Ababa. Canadian Journal of African Studies, 23(3), 442-451.
    8. Babinard, J. & Roberts, P. (2006). Maternal and Child Mortality Development Goals: What Can the Transport Sector Do? Transport Paper Series No. TP-12. World Bank, Washington, D.C.
    9. International Development Association, World Bank Group. (nd). Retrieved from April 20, 2019, from http://ida.worldbank.org/theme/gender.
    10. Brooks, W. & Donovan, K. (2017). Eliminating Uncertainty in Market Access: Evidence from New Bridges in Rural Nicaragua. Manuscript submitted to Econometrica with revisions requested.