Hail these women cabbies

PAMELA PHILIPOSE | Updated on: Sep 29, 2011


The pay is good and they are in demand… taxi-driving is proving to be a popular vocation for women from poor families.

Livelihood choices for young women with modest educational qualifications tend to be both limited and limiting, which is why the option of young women training to be drivers appears intriguing.

There are a few such initiatives in metropolitan India, driven largely by two trends. There is a growing section of women professionals keeping late hours and seeking the security of hiring competent women drivers; and there are a large number of young women from underprivileged backgrounds who have modest education and are in search of more remunerative professional choices.

Take 21-year-old Chandni, who is from Govindpuri, a resettlement area in the heart of Delhi. She may have been stitching salwars at Rs 25 a piece, but she now says, “I was attending sewing classes and hating them. That's when someone told me about an organisation that was planning to train women to drive. I was excited because I always loved cars.” Today, Chandni has a commercial licence that allows her to drive all motor vehicles, including taxis, except heavy ones like buses and trucks.

“Yes, Chandni was in one of our early batches,” smiles Meenu Vadhera, Secretary, Azad Foundation, which trains women from underprivileged backgrounds to step on the accelerator of change. The non-profit works in strategic alliance with Sakha Consulting Wings, a for-profit entity, to train women drivers and run women-only cab services. Azad Foundation has a partnership with the Maruti Institute of Driving Training and Research for the training programme; the Delhi Police's Crime Against Women Cell trains members in self-defence; and civil society organisations such as Jagori and YWCA provide support services like counselling.

Driving away from poverty

So far, more than 30 women have been trained and have licences to drive in the city; eight have commercial licences. Most of them come from extremely difficult backgrounds. At least 95 per cent have personally experienced violence. Says Meenu, “They have faced violence from fathers, husbands, brothers, devars (husband's younger brother) — verbal abuse, even acid attacks and assaults that cause fractures.”

According to her, many have been attacked for just wanting to be independent. Yet, once they are on their feet and have a regular income, they understand their rights, learn to fight back, and develop their own networks. “It's as if they have found wings. We open bank accounts for them; they get insurance cover, uniforms and mobile phones. In fact, they become totally different people,” she adds. The fact that they are now earning members immediately raises their status within the family too.

Explaining why they chose driving over other professions, Meenu, a graduate of the London School of Economics, with a Masters degree in Social Policy and Planning, says, “Driving is one of those mainstream activities that pay well. Our women drivers make anything from Rs 5,000 to Rs 12,000 a month. The field has been completely male-dominated and our intention was to break the glass ceiling and expand women's career choices.”

A bumpy first ride

Of course, the women face several hurdles along the way. First is the all-pervading cynicism: “How can you drive?” Second, the lack of a formal identity. “Nobody teaches poor women to keep their personal documents filed. Many don't even have birth certificates. So the first challenge for many is to put together all their papers and engage with the bureaucratic requirements of training to be a driver,” says Meenu.

The third challenge is finding the time and money for the training. “There are tremendous opportunity costs involved, because training can take 10 to 11 months, 10 hours a day. During this period these women can't earn. This means a great deal of negotiation at home since objections are constantly raised. We believe, though, that it is best this negotiation takes place at this stage rather than later, because after they become drivers they have to keep long hours anyway,” says Meenu.

Shanno Begum, 36, recalls the tough times she faced during training. “I was a young widow with three children. There was no money to buy food, no one to cook. Fortunately, my two teenaged daughters were pillars of support and gave me the confidence to carry on.” And 23-year-old Saroj, now the proud holder of a commercial licence, recalls, “Sometimes I didn't have money even to get on a bus to come for my training. My father is a rickshaw-puller and he used to constantly grumble about the expenses. My mother stood by me. That's why, when I got my first salary of Rs 4,000, I gave it to her. My father's attitude has now changed. He keeps telling me to come by his work area so that he can tell everyone, ‘Look, this is my daughter and she drives a car.'”

Steering with confidence

It is a magical moment when they actually turn into a driving professional. Shanno felt she was “flying in the sky”. Hailing from a conservative Muslim family, she had to completely reinvent herself to do this. “When my husband died of kidney failure, life lost all meaning. But I had to put food on the table, and within 15 days was vending vegetables. I then opened a small dhaba. I would be running it still, if this opportunity to learn driving hadn't come my way.” Today, she can reel out the names of the cars she has driven: Omni, Xylo, Innova, Indigo, Swift, Accent, Santro and Tavera. She now wants to try her hand on an imported vehicle.

But before arriving at this level of confidence and comfort, the women do face their share of road bumps. “I remember, I had just finished training and was apprenticing when I banged the car I was driving — a Santro — into an obstruction. It was so unnerving I thought I wouldn't be able to drive again,” recalls Chandni. In fact, all the women drivers have such stories to tell, but they learnt to keep their nerve.

As professional driving has a 24x7 cycle, there is night duty to handle. “Some women don't feel happy doing night duty and we don't push them, but others are quite comfortable with it,” says Meenu.

Negotiating their way

Negative attitudes are another worry. Sometimes their employers treat them poorly, asking them to double as domestic help. Aggressive male drivers attempt to intimidate them on the road, and some try to get physically intimate. “Once the women start earning, they need to protect themselves financially because they suddenly appear very attractive propositions for unemployed youth looking to live off their earnings,” remarks Meenu.

This is why she believes the training should go beyond imparting a skill, changing a punctured tyre or handling a minor engine problem, and prepare the women to negotiate life on their terms. And, yes, now the women do have ambitions for themselves. Shanno is happy driving as long as she can and then hopes to set up a driving school. Chandni wants to enrol for a Bachelors degree next year, while Saroj is doing her first year of BA. Marriage is not on the cards, she says firmly.

It is this transformation that Meenu is really looking for. “It is about empowerment. It's about redefining driving as a woman's preserve.”

© Women's Feature Service

Published on September 29, 2011
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