Behind the wheel with Uganda’s pioneering women drivers

Tuesday March 19 2024

Birabwa Hajara says that one of the things she loves about her job is the camaraderie. "In the end we are a bunch of colleagues bonding and caring for each other." Photo: Edna Namara/Global Press Journal

By Edna Namara

Birabwa Hajara’s braids are long enough to reach her hips if she let them down. But she doesn’t. “Some jobs limit our freedom of expression. A driver cannot let her long hair loose. It will be prickly,” she says. Instead, she ties the braids into a knot above her head, a style whose shape has earned it the local nickname “doughnut.” 

It’s 5am, still a little dark, and the 42-year-old is already up and about on her first job as a school driver. At gates to homes in different neighbourhoods, she stops and honks. Schoolchildren hop into her school bus. She will drive them to Taibah International School, park the school bus, and head to Kibuye Taxi Park, where she works all day as a driver in public transportation. Later in the evening, Birabwa will return to the school and drop the schoolchildren at their homes. 

Although recent data on women’s participation in the industry is not widely accessible, a 2014 study published by the University of Nairobi surveyed people working in the matatu, or minibus taxi sector, and found that in East Africa, close to five percent were women. The latest Census of Business Establishments in Uganda, done in 2011, also shows that the transportation industry, along with agriculture, fishing, storage, and information and communication, had one of the lowest shares of women business owners compared to other industries in the country. While 10,653 men were employed in transport and storage, there were only 2,830 women in the same field. 

But this is changing, particularly in Kampala. Anecdotal evidence shows that more women are taking up jobs in this traditionally male-dominated industry. Rashid Sekindi Mugenyi, chairman of the Uganda Taxi Operators Federation — which represents public transport workers in Uganda — says it is now common to spot women in places like Kibuye Taxi Park working as drivers, conductors or guides. A conductor collects fare from passengers and ensures that they’re seated comfortably and the vehicle is clean. A guide directs passengers to taxis in the park. 

Sekindi says that in the last few years, more women have registered with the organisation, drawing inspiration from others like Birabwa. In total, he says the organisation now has 30 women drivers, 100 women conductors and five women guides. A good number of them have registered with the organization in the last two years. But many are unregistered, given the informal nature of the job, suggesting that the number of women in the industry could be higher. 

The increase aligns with Uganda’s theme for International Women’s Day this year: “Inspire Inclusion.” Mutuuzo Peace Regis, the minister of state for gender and culture affairs, emphasises the government’s commitment to women’s economic empowerment, adding that, as part of its plans to mark International Women’s Day this year, the government will honour and award exemplary women who have pushed back against gender stereotypes. 


Meanwhile, Birabwa says being a driver has always been a childhood dream. “Growing up, I would aim for the co-driver’s seat to get a clear view of the footwork as the driver took on the road,” she says. But she almost didn’t pursue this dream after having children. “All my thoughts were on the children. I did not want anything to keep me away from them.” Then, when they had grown up, her sister’s husband had a minibus and needed a conductor. She asked for the job, then later learned how to drive. 

One of the things she loves about her job is the camaraderie. “There is a lot of goofing around. The men tease me, and I hit back,” she says as she playfully punches her male colleague. “In the end we are a bunch of colleagues bonding and caring for each other.” 

Christopher Sekatawa, a driver at Nateete Taxi Park, welcomes women’s participation in the industry. He says he admires their boldness for challenging stereotypes. But he worries about how it will affect children. “We wake up by 5.30am to go and work, so there is no time for the children to be guided through the day.” 

Masembe Paul, a passenger at the Kibuye Taxi Park who usually boards Birabwa’s minivan when traveling to Entebbe, says, “Women should not be in such occupations, which have so many challenges. These jobs are for hard-liners, men.” Masembe adds, “I would rather my wife sit at home till I get her money for a little shop.” 

But Birabwa says she doesn’t see any difference between her and a man. She is as strong. As the sole breadwinner in her family, she says she needs to cover expenses, which means she must work. “I believe when God was creating me, he did not put limits to my resilience because I am a woman.” 

Nandawula Hadija, who has worked at Kibuye Taxi Park as a conductor for three years, says Birabwa inspired her. Once tenants of the same landlord, the two women exchanged ideas on how to become economically independent. At the time, Nandawula’s husband, a casual labourer, was struggling financially. Then, Birabwa, through her connections at the taxi park, helped her secure a job as a conductor. 

The 33-year-old mother of two says that each morning, she takes her children to school, then walks to the taxi park. But each day comes with uncertainty. She is not attached to a specific minibus, so she has to hope that one of the drivers will need a conductor that day. 

The problem with this kind of arrangement, Nandawula says, is that drivers who take on standby conductors usually pick the women “because they know we accept small money, offers however little.” 

It is one of the challenges women in this sector face. The pay is low and unpredictable, but Nandawula says she doesn’t mind the little pay as she still gets to work. On a good day, she takes home Ush12,000 ($3.60), “which I would not have made from home.”

Women also face a lack of legal protection. Nakakeeto Harriet, who works as a conductor at the Nateete Taxi Park, says that like many other conductors and guides, she has no written agreement with her employer. This leaves workers like her at risk. She adds that employees rarely sue or report unfairness because they’d easily lose their jobs. The absence of a contract also means they cannot access small loans to improve their lives. 

The informal nature of Uganda’s transport industry affects women the most, according to a 2023 paper published by the Stockholm Environment Institute, an international research organization. Payment for operators, that is, drivers and conductors, is based on daily targets, which means they work lengthy shifts, a strenuous job for women who need to balance that and domestic work. 

Nakakeeto also says that women in this industry face a lot of stigma. For example, there are passengers who think her job is low-class and not fit for a woman like her. Others say she is a sex worker under the guise of a conductor. She is sexually harassed. “[Men] touch my boobs, my bum, but I ignore.” 

Sometimes, men laugh at her. “When I am calling out customers, they say I am not fit for the job,” she says. “They belittle me by mimicking my soft voice, but I am unperturbed. In fact, despite my soft voice, I shout out [to] welcome customers.”

She adds that some passengers will take advantage of her cool demeanour and decide not to pay her, an amount the driver usually deducts from her earnings for that day. He knows she won’t fight back. 

Immaculate Natukunda, the principal licensing officer in the Ministry of Works and Transport, says one of the hurdles in addressing these challenges is that the transport sector is largely private, and the government has little oversight. 

“We do not have the mandate to decide gender representation in [the] public transport industry,” she says.

Nanteza Aisha, the secretary for women in Uganda Taxi Operators Federation, also says they are limited in how much the organization can do to address these challenges. For example, they cannot address the disparities in earnings. “For us, our concern is if one comes to us reporting harassment or non-payment. Otherwise, the logistics are decided upon by the driver, who, within the park, is the boss of the conductor.” 

Bernard Mujuni, the commissioner of equity and rights in the Ministry of Gender, Labour and Social Development, says the integration of women into the traditionally male-dominated space is in line with Uganda’s Vision 2040 commitment to inclusive economic development, regardless of gender. 

He adds that the ministry is entrusted with empowerment programs such as the Uganda Women Entrepreneurship Program, aimed at helping women get economically stable by giving them small loans at interest-free rates for a year. The program, which also helps women get markets for their products, has been rolled out in 19 districts.

Meanwhile, Nakakeeto is saving to open a restaurant. “Given my daily earnings, it will take me about seven years,” she says. 

But Birabwa doesn’t want to leave this sector. She wants to drive a bigger vehicle. 

“I won’t die before I become a bus driver,” she says, as she stamps her foot to emphasize her zeal. “I do not intend to have more children. My children are grown-ups, so I don’t see any hindrance.”

Edna Namara is a Global Press Journal reporter based in Kampala, Uganda. This story was first published by the Global Press Journal.