Everyone comes out of a mother’s womb. It is so unfortunate a truth that some, or rather, most, Sri Lankans who own a beautiful culture of being sensitive to others, seem to forget this. It is a common truth that people come to Colombo for work in hundreds of thousands each day. Most daily commuters use public transport, i.e. buses and trains, for this purpose. Among them are disabled and pregnant mothers. Respecting the special needs of these two categories of human beings, one could see stickers pasted on some buses and trains instructing passengers to reserve seats for them.
Let me focus on pregnant mothers for now. Expectant women go through significant physical changes every day. Therefore, it is no exaggeration to state that most women experience aches in different parts of their body making them unable to keep standing for long hours, especially in crowded carriages with sudden pushes and pulls from all sides. Also, one should not forget, that some expectant women have experienced multiple miscarriages in the past and are in a continuous struggle to protect the child they are carrying currently. Therefore, crowds and their impatient movements in our trains and buses are nowhere conducive to expectant mothers. I once heard a foreigner travelling in a train murmuring to herself “they are like animals”, speaking of the utterly impatient Sri Lankan passengers trying to get off the train pulling and pushing one another with no sensitivity to the others around them, be it a pregnant woman or a disabled person or any other passenger. Indeed, I saw how this foreigner was pushed, dragged along and pulled in the crowd.
Given this bitter reality in our public transport, special attention should be given to pregnant women. But, yet again, the sad truth is that most passengers are highly insensitive and refuse to give the seats reserved for them. One could see how such stickers reserving seats for pregnant women as well as the disabled have been removed at times.
In trains, during the morning or evening office commuting hours, an average of 10-15 pregnant women are likely to be present. However, one could see a maximum of 4-8 seats reserved for them (These numbers are based on the observations of the author alone; no proper survey was conducted). If it is a four-seater block with two rows of two seats facing each other, and if the sticker is pasted towards only one row of the two, some selfish people go to the extent of claiming that only one row above which the sticker is pasted is dedicated for the pregnant women refusing to give the seat to the pregnant mother requesting their seat. This amounts to discriminatory behavior and it is not acceptable on any count.
The story in buses is a nightmare. The rate at which most buses brake and race makes it impossible for expectant women to stand in buses. While some buses have seats reserved for pregnant women, these seats are rarely offered to them. A/C buses do not have such reservations and most heartless conductors do not even make any effort to request a seat for pregnant mothers who board their buses. Some conductors go to the extent of refusing to allow pregnant women into their buses. Most passengers are far more heartless, making them fall into fake sleep all of a sudden or to be on a call or to look out of a window permanently refusing to acknowledge the presence of a pregnant woman. However, it should also be rightly mentioned that amidst these heartless people, there are very sensitive passengers and conductors who are not hesitant to assist pregnant women in public transport.
If a structured survey were conducted among working, and also non-working, pregnant mothers who use public transport, about their experience using public transport, one could draw a better picture than what I have explained so far. One could analyze how ruthless the comments and reactions received from some people are when asked for a seat, even the ones that are reserved for pregnant women. It is unfortunate that no one including the State, even the Ministry of Women’s Affairs and Child Development, takes the pain to conduct such a survey and take steps to better these unfair conditions. Another low cost project for this Ministry could be to paste much more permanent stickers or notices screwed into trains and buses, instructing passengers to reserve seats in public transport for categories of people such as pregnant women and persons with disabilities ensuring that a sufficient numbers of seats are reserved for these populations, who are clearly more vulnerable. Further, the transport system overall should be made conducive and comfortable to the general public without broken fans, torn seat covers, while also making available more trains and more frequent trains to reduce the number of passengers in a given train. The costs borne for this will be returned in terms of improved productivity of workers who come to work with the right mind undisturbed by a hazardous bus or train ride.
All in all, this is a plea to all Sri Lankans to be much more sensitive to your fellow pregnant women in public transport. One day you yourself will be a pregnant mother, or a husband, or a father or a mother or a relative of a pregnant mother. Also remember that we all came out of a pregnant mother and how she was treated by the society has definitely impacted on who and how we are today. Please be humane enough to respect pregnant women for a better tomorrow.
- Marian Fernando