“Easy on the brakes! If there was a pregnant woman on board, she’d have a miscarriage because of your hasty driving!” a young lady shouts at the minibus driver, between the honking and screeching cars jamming up Mostafa El-Nahass, a street one hour away from Cairo’s city center. The young lady’s comment, sparked many questions about just how accessible Cairo is for mothers and mothers-to-be. How accessible is Cairo for children? In fact, how accessible are many cities in the region for mothers and their kids? We speak to mothers from Cairo, Jeddah, Amman, and Beirut to find out.
Egypt gets 29.6 births per 1,000 people, leaving its capital of Cairo with almost 20 million people. Jessy Radwan, 25-year-old mother of a seven-month-old says that she can’t name one thing that is mother-friendly in her city. “The idea of walking in the streets does not exist [in Cairo,]” the freelance realtor tells progrss. “There’s no way anyone can walk with a stroller in the city.” However, Radwan says walking with her baby in the stroller is possible within the borders of her gated community in 6th of October City, a north-western suburb in Cairo. Although she has the privilege of taking her child for a walk within the confines of her compound, she still wishes she could walk in the streets, comparing Cairo unfavorably to Western cities that she has visited. “You can walk everywhere in Barcelona. Also some U.S. cities are very suitable for kids.”
Salma Elewa, 23-year-old stay-at-home mother of a one-and-a-half-year-old infant, navigates Cairo by taxi or car, and sometimes walks if the destination is nearby. “Taking the stroller in the street is torture, because not all streets have sidewalks, so I feel like I’m walking between the cars, scared one of the cars will hit the stroller,” she tells progrss. “If there’s a sidewalk, I have to carry the stroller after every few [meters] because the levels of the sidewalk are not even.” So she ends up carrying her baby girl, which is not a very sustainable solution, she argues, since once they grow old, children want to start walking like adults. “There are many hazards on the street and sidewalks like open potholes, which are an exciting discovery for children that age.”
One of Elewa’s other concerns is the absence of any infrastructure for nursing mothers. “It is really a disgusting experience to nurse your baby sitting on a toilet if you don’t have a nursing cover to do it outside.”
Amira Ismail, the mother of a three-year-old girl who moves between Cairo and Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, compares her experience in both cities. “In Jeddah, it’s very nice that in restaurants there are family sections and many of them have children’s areas inside…so that mothers can [keep an eye on their children when they go out to eat],” she tells progrss. “In Cairo, I guess only a few restaurants have kids’ areas, most of which are fast food [chains], so dining out in Cairo with kids is a pain.” She explains that, at one popular shopping center in one of the city’s new suburbs, there is a children’s play area, but because it is separate from the restaurants, she does not feel comfortable leaving her daughter to play there alone.
She notes that, in Jeddah, bathrooms in malls have fitting, changing and nursing rooms for mothers to feed or change diapers – a facility that does not exist in all malls in Cairo.
Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
Saudi Arabia has a birth rate of 18.4 births per 1,000 people. Jeddah, the Saudi Arabian port city and commercial capital, is home to almost four million. Accessibility for women in Saudi cities has been making headlines over the past few years, especially since they aren’t allowed to drive – yet. Saudi Crown Prince Mohamed bin Salman passed a bill earlier this year lifting the ban on women driving as of June 2018, meaning that navigating the kingdom’s cities should be easier for women who drive soon.
“My city isn’t really a walking city in general,” psychological research consultant and 33-year-old mother of a five-year-old boy and seven-month-old baby Nabilah Halal tells progrss. Halal explains that she doesn’t walk much in Jeddah due to the scorching weather and humid nature of the city, which has an average high of 32°C (90°F) and average low of 23°C (73°F). “However, recently, parks and play areas with ramps have been made available in specific areas. These also have tiled floors, [which are] helpful [if you’re pushing] a stroller. Most of our sidewalks are low, so it’s easy to lift a baby stroller.”
As for malls and hospitals, Halal says they are mostly very accessible, with ramps and good sized halls. On the other hand, she suggests that apartment buildings also include ramps or direct parking access from garages to ease movement, as not all buildings currently do.
“I go to a gym with a daycare service where I can leave my baby at while I finish my workout. The daycare service is definitely mother-friendly,” stay-at-home mother of a one-year-and-seven-month-old baby girl, Nazly Megahed, 33, tells progrss. Megahed navigates the city with Careem, the UAE-born cab-hailing service. While she can’t think of anything to be done for easier navigation, she believes that public parks would be a good addition to the city. This would cater to both mothers and their kids, since there’s very few places that people can walk without feeling the urge to step into one of the air-conditioned shops for a break. Also, the leafiness of a park would lash away some of the heat, she adds.
According to CODATU, Amman plays a major role in Jordan’s economy, being home to 50 percent of the country’s population and having 80 percent of the country’s industrial production within its metropolitan area, which is comprised of Amman, Zarqa and Russeifa. The capital has significantly expanded, “without real planning,” even though a master plan was designed in 1988. The limited investment in public transport has made Jordan’s car ownership rate one of the highest within the region, with 100 cars for every 1,000 inhabitants. Only 13 percent of Amman’s population uses public transport and mobility continues to be a major expense for the middle-class, since buying a car remains a huge aspiration.
Jordan has an annual birth rate of 23.9 per 1,000 people, with 9.7 million living in the capital. Lina Baddar, 28, quality assistant for an ERP system and mother of a three-month-old boy, is among the 87 percent of the Ammani population who navigate the city using a private car. She says that she finds it very difficult to navigate the city with her son in a stroller. “I tried once to use the stroller and it was a horrible experience, since the [sidewalks] are not smooth [or] wide [enough] for a baby stroller. Some streets do not even have [sidewalks],” Baddar tells progrss. “I think special treatment for babies is a must. Infrastructure for roads and pavements must consider babies and people with special needs.”
Rand Alzu’bi, 30 years old, renewable energy engineer and the mother of a six-month-old boy, agrees with Baddar that walking with a baby in a stroller is generally not easy due to the fact that the city’s sidewalks are mostly narrow and crowded. Alzu’bi finds some side streets and main street crossings relatively wide enough for strollers, and that some ramps are available near traffic lights for easier access. “However, slopes and ease of access are not found everywhere, even at the entrances of some malls,” she tells progrss. “Pollution from cars and the fact that streets in Jordan are not flat can also add to the difficulty.” According to both women, while car-ownership is a threat to Amman’s wellbeing as a city, cars are still the safest way for mothers with children to navigate the city.
Not far from Amman, almost five hours away by car, private vehicles account for almost two-thirds of urban trips in Beirut. Lebanon is one of the countries that has watched its urban plans suffer from long armed conflicts, including wars with neighboring countries and civil wars. The conflicts have made planning long-term, integrated transportation strategies nearly impossible. Taking place between 1975 and 1990, the Civil War in particular and its aftermath has prevented coherent transportation and land-use plans. Both the public and private sectors have focused on trying to take advantage of the high purchasing power of one small segment of society, often neglecting those dependent on public transport and public space.
The absence of planning has paved roads that witness a heavy inflow of cars into the center of the city daily, mainly because the increase in travel demand has not been met by increased public transportation. Also, the lack of planning has given birth to urban slums that make the urban mobility situation more challenging. The high levels of congestion in the Lebanese capital, Beirut, makes walking the most efficient way to get around downtown. However, this is not the case for mothers and children.
Lebanon has a birth rate of 14.3 births per 1,000 people, with around 1.9 million people living in the Lebanese capital. Ritta Melki has two children, a six-year-old and a one-month-old, and navigates mainly by car for safety purposes, although, even then, she doesn’t feel safe because of the number of reckless drivers on the road, she tells progrss. Lately, she’s also been wanting to use the stroller for her newborn, but hasn’t felt that the city will accommodate her. “Honestly, I still haven’t felt like there’s any place I’d enjoy going [to], especially now with my newborn. Even with my eldest, I’m afraid, especially of traffic accidents and crazy drivers,” she elaborates.
“I wish there were special roads for trucks and buses, more places to breastfeed, special lanes for walking with strollers or on bikes,” she adds. Breastfeeding in public spaces is another thing that new mothers are concerned with in Beirut. 32-year-old Sara Chreif, who works at the Danish Refugee Council as a protection manager and has a son that is only a few days old, believes that she will have a problem breastfeeding in public. “It’s not common to see it in Beirut. I want to do it, but I am concerned [with] people’s reactions,” Chreif tells progrss.
While walking may be one of the fastest ways to get around the congested streets of cities like Amman, Beirut, Jeddah, and Cairo, for mothers with small children, safety concerns about the lack of adequate infrastructure and the absence of right-of-way regulations often act as a deterrent to women wanting to go for a casual stroll. Being from a certain socio-economic class, the women interviewed have the privilege to think about these things, while the majority, who often don’t have the luxury to buy a car or even use taxis on a regular basis, are forced to take risks as they carry their babies and hold their toddlers by the hand as they cross streets and hop on careening buses to navigate their cities.
Throughout our interviews with mothers, and in spite of the differences in topography between the cities, there seemed to be a number of common concerns that always went down to the lack of accessible public transport and the absence of pedestrian-centric city planning. By optimizing parts of these cities to ensure that pedestrians – whether they be parents with children, the elderly, different-abled persons, or simply the casual passerby – have ample room to walk safely, cities like Cairo, Amman, Beirut, or Jeddah may be able to ease the burden off roads.