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Women at the Wheel

In Mozambique, an effort to train women as ambulance drivers enhances public safety and fosters opportunity.

 

Red Cross ambulance drivers in Mozambique run a rescue drill on World First Aid Day. (Photo by José Tomás, courtesy of the Mozambique Red Cross Society)

You don’t have to be a public health expert to recognize the dangers of travel in Mozambique, where drivers maneuver at high speeds on crowded, poorly maintained roads. “Every day, we see more accidents because of this crazy way of driving,” says Francelina Romão, an advisor on gender issues to the Health Minister of Mozambique.

Romão offers a solution that incorporates data analysis, gender equity, and common sense in roughly equal measure: Put more women behind the wheel. She has piloted that idea within the health ministry by recruiting and training women to become ambulance drivers. Today, 57 women drive ambulances for the ministry, and they account for about 10 percent of all commercially licensed drivers employed by the agency. Romão’s initiative began with a single female ambulance driver back in 2007. More recently, her idea has taken off within other organizations.

The Mozambique Red Cross Society (MRCS), for example, now relies on 28 women—along with 2 men—to operate its fleet of 10 ambulances. “Women have become the face of MRCS,” says Américo José Ubisse, secretary general of the organization. MRCS recruited its driver corps over the past two years, and it invited both women and men to apply for the post. But as part of “a new, exciting initiative of gender balance,” the group put an emphasis on finding female driver candidates, Ubisse explains.

“I think we’ve started a movement,” Romão says.

That movement started several years ago, when Romão took a close look at accident data in Mozambique. She found that men are responsible for a disproportionate share of the country’s traffic accidents. Male drivers are more likely than women to speed, to drive under the influence of alcohol, and to drive recklessly. These trends align with research done in other parts of the world. A study by the Swedish Transport Administration, for example, calculated that if men were to drive the way that women do, the number of traffic-related deaths in Sweden would decrease by 200 per year—and that’s in a country where accident rates are considerably lower than in Mozambique.

African countries bear a disproportionate share of the world’s traffic-related injuries, according to the World Health Organization. Mozambique suffers 1,500 traffic fatalities annually, along with thousands of nonfatal injuries, at an estimated cost to the country of $60 million. To highlight this issue, particularly in developing countries, the WHO has declared 2010-2020 the Decade of Action for Road Safety.

Once she understood the gender dynamics of traffic safety, Romão began looking for ways to use that insight. Eventually, she fastened on the idea of recruiting women for the job of ambulance driver. “Most of the women I talked to said they had never thought of doing this job,” she says. “It requires getting a commercial license. That means going to driving school. Women in lower-paying jobs don’t have the money for that. And even if they did, they never thought they would be hired, because they see only men driving ambulances.”

To build a pipeline of qualified female drivers, the health ministry has allotted funds to pay driving-school tuition on behalf of women who take part in Romão’s initiative. (Tuition comes to about $500—which is a great deal of money in Mozambique.) Recruiting efforts have focused on women who already work for the ministry in low-paying jobs such as housekeeping. “It’s a step up for them to become drivers,” Romão says. “They earn a higher salary, and they’re treated differently from when they were cleaners. They have more status.”

The initiative in Mozambique is “an idea that other countries could borrow,” says Michael Seo, cofounder of the African Institute for Health Policy. “It’s a unique, organic solution,” he notes—one that addresses a pair of problems with global implications: traffic safety and economic empowerment for women. This past October, Seo’s organization showcased Romão’s efforts at a conference on health care innovation in Mozambique. Accident rates among newly licensed women ambulance drivers have been “close to zero,” and the accidents in question have been “very minor,” Romão says. What’s more, she notes, male drivers have begun paying more attention to safety issues. “They see the competition now, and so they’re improving,” she says. n photograph by josé tomás, courtesy of the mozambique red cross society !driving change: Red Cross ambulance drivers in Mozambique run a rescue drill on World First Aid Day. October, Seo’s organization showcased Romão’s efforts at a conference on health care innovation in Mozambique.

Accident rates among newly licensed women ambulance drivers have been “close to zero,” and the accidents in question have been “very minor,” Romão says. What’s more, she notes, male drivers have begun paying more attention to safety issues. “They see the competition now, and so they’re improving,” she says.

 
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