Women’s Mobility

I spent over five months researching women’s mobility in practice to create the world’s first scale of women’s mobility. I considered myself a feminist and a researcher of women’s issues before this project, yet I was unaware of how much an inability to more freely in public damages the lives of some women.

Women in some countries risk being beaten if they leave home without telling their husbands. Forty-nine percent of women in Burundi approved of a man beating his wife if she goes out in public without telling him [1]; Fifty-nine percent of women approved in Chad, while fifty-four percent of women approved in South Sudan [2,3]. About forty percent of women and men approved in Vanuatu [4].

It has been legally forbidden since 1997 in Myanmar for women ages 16-25 to travel alone within a certain distance of the border [5]. Women in Saudi Arabia are legally forbidden from going into public without an escort. The rarity of public bathrooms for women means that women often must be escorted home if they are out in public and need to use the bathroom [6].

Though I am fortunate enough to be free from the obvious barriers listed above, I have come to realize that being a woman also limits my mobility in unexpected ways. This past December, I traveled to my boyfriend’s family’s home. When I told my parents that I was planning to visit my boyfriend’s family, they had a myriad of questions.

“How far away is it?” “How are you getting there?” “How long will you be gone?”

I told them that my boyfriend’s family lives about 7 hours away, that I would travel by bus, and that I would be there for a week. Then, they said, “7 hours? On a bus? Alone? We’d love for you to visit his family but we’re … concerned.”  My boyfriend and I had planned to travel together, which I told my parents. Instantly, their concern vanished.

Though my conversation with my parents was short, it would not leave my mind. I am nearly 23 years old and have lived independent of my parents since I was 18. I am used to going where I want, when I want, and with whom I want.

The subtext of my parents’ concern was clear. “We’re worried about you traveling alone. If, however, you travel with a man, we won’t be worried at all.” I remembered all that I had read about countries where parents and society don’t allow women to go out in public alone and began to wonder if my country is really all that different.  

Perhaps my parents’ concern over my traveling alone had nothing to do with my being a woman. Perhaps they were simply worrying for the safety of their child. Perhaps they would have responded in the same way if my brother had wanted to travel a large distance alone.

Perhaps my younger brother being allowed to drive alone into the city when he was 17, while my parents insisted that my sister and I travel with friends when we went into the city in our early 20s, had nothing to do with gender. Perhaps my boyfriend jogging miles alone at night without fearing for his safety, while I worry for mine if I walk a couple of blocks at night, has nothing to do with gender. Perhaps my sister and I being catcalled and harassed in public many times, while my brother has had no such experiences, has nothing to do with gender. Perhaps men masturbating in front of me in public, on two separate occasions, has nothing to do with gender.

Perhaps my sister asking me, while I was writing this paragraph, to go into the city with her because she didn’t “want to go there alone” has nothing to do with gender.  

Personally, I doubt it.

Through my experiences researching for our scale on women’s mobility and examining my own experiences of restricted mobility, I have come to realize that women all over the world can have their mobility restricted. My identity as a woman makes it more difficult for me, both psychologically and logically, to access public spaces in the same way that my male peers can.

The fear that women in public places can experience, the fear that comes from being taught your entire life to be wary of the outside world, the fear of feeling like a potential victim every time you walk out the door, is difficult to explain and even more difficult to understand if you have not experienced it. Let us listen to women’s experiences so that we may better understand them. Let us strive to make public spaces safe for and accessible to all.

—by MM


[1] Institut de Statistiques et d’Études Économiques du Burundi (ISTEEBU), Ministère de la Santé Publique et de la Lutte contre le Sida [Burundi] (MSPLS), et ICF International. 2012. Enquête Démographique et de Santé Burundi 2010. Bujumbura, Burundi : ISTEEBU, MSPLS, et ICF International.

[2] Institut National de la Statistique, des Études Économiques et Démographiques (INSEED), Ministère de la Santé Publique (MSP) et ICF International, 2014-2015. Enquête Démographique et de Santé et à Indicateurs Multiples (EDS-MICS 2014-2015). Rockville, Maryland, USA : INSEED, MSP et ICF International.

[3] Ministry of Health and National Bureau of Statistics, 2010. South Sudan Household Survey 2010, Final Report. Juba, South Sudan.

[4] VNSO (Vanuatu National Statistics Office) and SPC (Secretariat of the Pacific Community). 2014. Vanuatu Demographic and Health Survey, 2013.

[5] Belak, B. (2002). Gathering strength: women from Burma on their rights. Muang Chiangmai, Thailand: Images Asia. Retrieved from http://www.ibiblio.org/obl/docs/Gathering_Strength.htm

[6] Sharkey, J. (2015, Feb 03). Businesswomen navigate traditions in saudi arabia. New York Times. Retrieved from https://nyti.ms/2jGwWw3


One thought on “Women’s Mobility

  1. V Hudson says:

    This is such an important issue! We will know we have the society we want to have when women do not have to fear going outside–and when they do not have to fear coming home!

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