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Transport, (im)mobility and spatial poverty traps: issues for rural women and girl children in sub-Saharan Africa

Working papers

This paper, prepared for the international workshop "Understanding and addressing spatial poverty traps: an international workshop",  reflects on the experiences of women and girl children resident in rural areas of sub-Saharan Africa with poor accessibility (to services and markets) and inadequate transport (in terms of regularity, reliability and cost). Examples from field research conducted over the last 30 years in diverse agro-ecological and cultural contexts in western, southern and eastern Africa are used to explore the impacts of relative immobility and poor services on women and girls’ livelihoods and life chances. Women and girl children are particularly likely to suffer poor access to health and education services because of constraints on their mobility, with important implications not only in terms of immediate health and educational outcomes, but also subsequent livelihood opportunities. The contribution of low female mobility and broader transport failures to the maintenance of inter-generational cycles of poverty is a major theme of the paper.

Girls’ physical access to educational services and its impact on future livelihood opportunities and life chances is considered first. Here evidence is presented concerning problems of access associated with a number of factors, including fear of attack and rape on the journey to school in southern Africa, and the impact of transport gaps on the demand for girl-child labour as transporters among poor households in rural West Africa. Such factors may substantially inhibit the access of girl children to regular education with potentially severe knock-on impacts not only regarding their access to work opportunities but also with broader implications in terms of fertility rates, child-rearing etc.

The impacts of mobility and transport impediments on girls’ and women’s access to health services in rural areas are then examined. The immediate dangers of poor access in the case of emergency obstetric care are obvious, but longer term health problems caused by failure to access timely health care (including obstetric fistula) are also now gaining attention. These have important implications for women’s livelihoods and quality of life.

In much of rural Africa, women’s principal means of livelihood is through agricultural production and associated trade. In areas with poor or expensive transport services, women commonly face particular constraints in accessing markets. Their movements may be restricted not merely because of limited resources to pay fares (if transport is available) for themselves and their goods, but in some cases because they (together with their children) have labour obligations including head porterage for male family members. Drawing principally on research in West Africa, in this case, the paper examines the mobility problems women face in accessing markets and the implications of inadequate and delayed market access (in terms of reduced prices, loss of customers, spoilage of sale goods etc). The broader issue of women’s access to off-farm incomes and multiple livelihood strategies is also considered. There is now considerable evidence that diversification out of farming is a highly valued strategy in rural areas for insuring against the deepest poverty, but women’s mobility constraints may militate against full development of such opportunities.

The final section of the paper considers the potential of a range of transport and non-transport interventions for initiating positive change among women. Improved accessibility has conventionally been perceived in terms of road improvement and, more recently, improved motorised transport services. The paper reviews evidence regarding the extent to which road construction is able to counteract the negative effects of physical distance and time spent travelling to major markets by women and girls in ‘economically stagnant regions’, the associated importance of low-cost, regular and reliable transport services, and the potential for Intermediate Means of Transport, including bicycles and motorcycles, to fill the transport gap where motorised services are poor. Non-transport interventions which can counteract remoteness and poor accessibility are also considered: in particular, the remarkable diffusion of mobile phones across Africa in the past few years and recent evidence of their growing impact in relatively remote areas, drawing on examples from Ghana and Malawi.

Gina Porter