JUBA, South Sudan – In front of the Juba Teaching Hospital in busy downtown Juba, South Sudan, a group of women sell vegetables, fruits and tea – a traditional occupation for the country’s women. On the other side of the street, young men who work as drivers of boda bodas – motorcycle taxis – watch them as they wait for their next customer.
It’s a familiar scene of socially defined gender roles in the city: women selling produce while men engage in more labor-intensive work. But anyone who looks closer will see that among the group of male motorbike drivers outside the hospital, there is one woman. Jamilla Abdalla, 33, is not there as a customer, as is usually the case for women – she’s a driver, hanging out and competing with her male counterparts for fares. Abdalla is one of the only female commercial motorbike drivers in Juba. She has heard of one other, but they’ve never met.
“Women are scared to do this kind of job because of the security risk,” says Abdalla. “One time I carried two male customers and suspected that they were armed with knives. I decided to divert from where they asked me to go, which was a remote area. They both jumped and ran away. So things like this would scare women.”
A male commercial motorbike driver who would only identify himself as Tombe says there is also stigma that keeps women away from this kind of work. “Some members of the public hold negative feelings about boda riders,” he says. “They accuse us of being thieves and bad people, so you see why women do not want to do it.”
The use of motorcycles for commercial transportation is a growing trend in Juba, driven by poor public transportation systems and massive youth unemployment. Until last year, Abdalla worked as a finance officer at a local clinic. Her decision to switch jobs, she says, was influenced by the current economic situation in South Sudan, which has experienced prolonged civil war and a collapsing economy.
“The money I earned at the clinic was too little, and not equal with my responsibilities,” she says. “Things are so hard here at the moment, and my family and I need to survive.”
“Now this motorcycle taxi is helping me,” she adds, with a smile.
In a society that defines a job like driving motorbike taxis as exclusive to men, Abdalla is defying the odds. Unlike her male counterparts, she has to juggle driving her motorcycle taxi and taking care of her family, which is composed of her elderly mother and her late sister’s four children.
“In a busy working day, I could earn up to 700 South Sudanese pounds (about $7),” she said. “I’m not even working the whole day, so if I were to spend the whole day here like the men, I may be getting 1,000 South Sudanese pounds (about $10) or more. But I have to go home early and take care of the kids.”
But being a woman in this job also has certain advantages – Abdalla says female customers tend to pick her over her male colleagues. “They tell me they feel comfortable sitting behind me because they know I’ll be more careful,” she says. “Some of the other riders don’t take care. They just want to ride fast and come back for another passenger, and women usually are not comfortable if you’re riding too fast.”
Beyond the increase in earnings, Abdalla has discovered another benefit to being a boda boda driver: the freedom to work on her own schedule.
“For me, the important thing about this job is that it works for me […] as a family person,” she says. “I can work, and then take a break.”
About 300 yards from the motorbike taxi stop where Abdalla works is a motorcycle shop where 23-year-old Babra Namatovu works as a mechanic. According to locals, she’s the only female in the city doing that job.
Born and raised in northern Uganda, Namatovu has been working as a mechanic in South Sudan for the past two years. Her mother tried to discourage her from entering the male-dominated career, but Namatovu had always dreamed of working with motorbikes.
“I have liked this work since I was young,” she says. “I saw those guys who repair motorcycles, and I admired them. I took my time to learn the skills, and it’s not hard.”
Both Namatovu and Abdalla say more women should take up traditionally male jobs, especially as the country’s economic troubles make it more difficult for anyone to find work. They encourage women to go to community workshops and get apprenticeships, so they can acquire technical skills and eventually become financially independent. “If you rely on men, that’s when they may insult or abuse you, you see,” Abdalla says.
And Namatovu wants families to stop imposing careers on their daughters simply because society has decided that only certain jobs are appropriate for women.
“If your daughter likes the work, then she should go for it,” she says.