Women who break the glass ceiling at the workplace take on patriarchy. In the humble bastis of small towns and big cities, women who adopt non-traditional livelihoods break the norms on all fronts — social, cultural and financial — and in both their homes and workplaces.

For young women from resource-poor households where education for the girl child is hardly encouraged and household duties shifted on to her tender shoulders at an early age, working outside the home itself is a big step.

Beyond that, working in a job world dominated by men is a giant leap — frowned upon both by family and society.

But there are women who have managed to do this. They have broken convention and joined the workforce of taxi drivers and chauffeurs — a space where, till some years ago, the presence of women was taboo.

“Women have always been encouraged to do unpaid work at home or traditional work like creche services, sewing, care-giving. We wanted to work with women from marginalised groups and provide them alternatives where they could be principal breadwinners,” explains Shrinivas Rao, Chief Operating Officer of Azad Foundation, which has been pursuing its ‘Women on Wheels’ programme across the cities of Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata, Ahmedabad, Indore and Bengaluru for the past 10 years.

For those trained at Azad to become a professional driver — be it the experience of Anita Verma from Indore who came out of a violent marriage to become an on-call chauffeur with the women taxi service Sakha , or the story of Pallabi Chakraborty who withstood extreme bullying for being transgender — the trajectory is similar. Here are women born in families typically steeped in patriarchy who have used sheer grit, determination and an encouraging support structure to shift gears and move on a road less travelled.

“We looked for opportunities that would help to break gender stereotypes… livelihoods that would not just provide a remunerative income but attacked the very core of patriarchy by providing mobility to women. Something which made them feel in control,” recalls Meenu Vadera, Director of Azad.

Game for change

How do these women behind the wheel recount their experience? In Lady Drivers — a compilation of the trials, tribulation and triumphs of 12 marginalised women who changed the course of their lives through becoming women drivers — Prachi recounts, “It is not only my life but also the lives of my brothers and others around me that have changed. The father who never cared for me is so proud that his daughter is a driver, and keeps daring people to speak ill of me. ‘She is my tiger, she’s not afraid of anyone’ … All this makes me happy and sad at the same time. If my father could have understood this earlier, the picture would have been very different.”

In the same compilation, Sakshi comments, “Every now and then, the spirit sinks, I go through a low. But despite this, hope rises up. I feel, ‘let me hang on for a bit more, maybe I will be successful’. When we go out on the road to drive, people look at us with surprise — such a young woman and driving a car. If the car is standing somewhere and someone passes a comment, I respond with a tough answer. We are learning self-defence techniques also, which help us to keep ourselves secure.

“In addition, we also learn how to help women who are unable to defend themselves. Being strong is not easy. Even today I get scared when I have to protest. My legs start shaking badly. But I have seen that after such protests, the rudeness stops. This has made me understand I can lead a better life if I do not consider myself weak.”

Azad Foundation does more than training the women as drivers and finding them a job with the help of strategic partner Sakha . It tries to make life easier for these women drivers in their community. It does this through working with men in their families, and the neighbourhood, to change perspectives and attitudes towards women. Through its programme, Men for Gender Justice, it addresses the basic concepts of gender stereotyping and patriarchy and tries to make men look at women and their work through a prism of equality.

But the interventions are not easy at any stage, with patriarchy entrenched in mindsets and attitudes. It is hard work to first convince women to take driver training, help them manage family hostility and ultimately find them jobs that suit their circumstances.

A barrier and impact analysis of the Wheels programme revealed that for every 100 women Azad engages with, only one gets converted into employment, two get converted into employability and only seven get converted into enrolment, Rao points out.

That, however, should not be disheartening, considering the multiplier impact it can have over generations to come. And with Azad moving to induct other non-traditional livelihoods into its portfolio and build a force of women mechanics, women house-painters and women tour guides, it hopes to make a serious dent in the prevailing patriarchy.