Kicking Harassment off the Bus: Indian Bus Drivers Learn to Stand Up for Female Passengers

Sanjay Jagtap has spent the past 25 years of his life as a public bus driver in the state of Maharashtra in India. He always thought sexual harassment was an important but distant issue, something he read about in newspapers or heard about on television. That’s before he had a major wake-up call. Thanks to AJWS grantee Mahila Sarvangeen Utkarsh Mandal (MASUM), Sanjay learned the truth: sexual harassment on public buses is a tragically common occurrence, and he could play a pivotal role in stopping it on his own bus.

MASUM empowers women and girls to fight for gender equality in their communities, and trains allies to stand alongside them, pushing for social change together. In late 2020, MASUM responded to the needs of women of their community in Maharashtra by hosting a training for 208 employees of the state’s public transit authority. This training taught them how to put an end to sexual harassment on their buses. And in the two years since then, bus drivers say they’ve completely changed how they do their jobs — making for safer rides, and maybe even saving lives.

Transit Harassment as a Social Issue

The violence and harassment that women can experience on buses in India became an issue of international concern after a 2012 fatal gang rape of a woman on a private bus in Delhi in 2012. Across India, people began speaking about the issue of public safety on buses. But far less extreme cases can still fundamentally change women’s lives, says MASUM co-founder Manisha Gupte.

Harassment can follow women their entire lives — preventing them from completing their education and even leading to an unwanted early marriage, she says. When parents learn that their daughters are being harassed on their commute to school, they often decide to end their education, according to Manisha.

“After parents remove their daughter from school, she is sitting at home instead of going to college, and becomes a big liability for her parents,” Manisha said.

To prevent gossip from spreading about why they pulled their daughters out of school, parents will often hastily arrange a marriage.

Today, employees of Maharashtra State Road Transport Corporation (MSRTC) say they are horrified by the 2012 case, believing the incident is a dark stain on their profession. But before the MASUM training, they had never learned how to prevent even the everyday harassment that plagued their buses.

MASUM’s sensitivity training was up close and personal with public transportation workers, helping them spot and stop harassment when it takes place. Photo courtesy MASUM.

MASUM Launches a Unique Training Program

Over the course of 12 days, MASUM in collaboration with partner 3D Program for Women and Girls trained 208 drivers and bus depot employees of MSRTC, learning the definition of harassment and the general consequences for women facing harassment in the public sphere. The employees were given scenarios to discuss in small groups and then share the best way to intervene with the wider group of transit staff.

“The bus drivers were not sure what was a consensual or friendly conversation and what was non-consensual. They used to believe that if a girl is talking to a boy, she must like him. Some considered a girl who spoke to boys to be of ‘questionable character,’ inviting unwelcome advances from men. By the end of the program, they were better able to make the distinction,” Manisha says.

She feels quite hopeful that this work will have a major impact on the lives of women and girls in the area, because “if transit workers intervene, even in a few instances, we could be able to change girls’ entire lives.”

The Training’s Impact on Bus Drivers

Sanjay always found his job meaningful because he likes providing an important service to people. He says he understood that women aren’t treated equally in Indian society, but he did not realize how that inequality manifests on his bus as harassment — until now.

“As a staff member, I now know I should intervene and address the problem if there is harassment taking place on my bus, something I did not do before.”

Sanjay Mamane, a bus driver who has been employed at MSRTC for 26 years, feels very strongly that the training was important because as bus drivers. Drivers, he says, provide a public service, and “public services like this should ensure safety.”

While he had always known that women and girls sometimes face harassment on public transit, “now we have the tools to address these issues when they arise.”  He now feels that it is his responsibility to make sure that women who travel on his bus feel safe.

Manisha InInammkee served for 14 years as a bus depot manager and has long been aware of the kinds of discrimination that women face in Indian society based on her personal experience. She is grateful that the training, “created an awareness among the MSRTC staff of harassment women face on public transit.”

She says that the training has deeply influenced the behavior of her colleagues — and will for years to come. “This training will be reflected in their actions and their duties. It is something that will stay with them”

“As a staff member, I now know I should intervene and address the problem if there is harassment taking place on my bus,” said one driver of MASUM’s training. Photo courtesy MASUM.