India Interior

Women at the wheel: Azad Foundation’s ‘by women, for women’ cab service is driving change

Preeti Mehra | Updated on March 07, 2020 Published on March 07, 2020

In January this year, a news report announced the launch of a cab service at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport specifically for women travellers. They would now be able to negotiate the unsafe Capital any time of the night and day, chauffeured by women drivers trained in self-defence.

In less than two months, the service, initiated by social enterprise Sakha, has gone beyond its original brief. Now, some of the women drivers have started multitasking as guides and take tourists not only to Delhi’s famous destinations but also to the golden triangle of Agra and Jaipur.

But behind the enterprise by women, for women, are stories of those behind the steering wheel that inspire awe for sheer perseverance. It certainly was not an easy drive for them, given parental, family and societal pressures.

Take 24-year-old Moida’s story. She hails from Bareilly in Uttar Pradesh and has been driving a Sakha cab for one-and-a-half years. Along with ferrying passengers to and from the international airport, Moida is also a trained guide and part of the Spice Tours initiative. She takes visitors on walking tours in Delhi and on guided tours to Agra and Jaipur. But it hasn’t been easy for the young girl and she still faces pressure from the extended family and the community.

“I love the work I do and I keep trying to explain to them that I only ferry women passengers,” says Moida, who has undergone training both in driving and as a tour guide.

Training beyond the job

A lot of effort goes into the training process. “Our training is not simply teaching women how to drive. It has 14 flexible modules imparting skills beyond those required for the immediate job. Sometimes it is so difficult for women to just come out of the house and breaks take place in training. For some women the training takes five to six months… after all, women have been left out by design,” says Meenu Vadera, the Director of Azad Foundation, a professional feminist organisation that questions the very core of patriarchy and works across social and religious divides to empower resource-poor women and engage them in non-traditional livelihoods. Sakha is the Foundation’s cab service venture to increase work participation of women.

Azad Foundation started in 2008 and since then has made over 2,000 women employable. Apart from Sakha, today more than 1,000 women are working as professional chauffeurs in places like Unicef, the US embassy, five-star hotels, the Delhi Commission for Women and the Municipal Corporation of Indore. Over the years, the Foundation has provided over 1.25 million safe rides and generated a cumulative income of more than ₹17 crore.

It also gave Delhi its first DTC bus driver. However, it has not been able to place more women as public bus drivers. “The buses are designed such that only those drivers who are 5.3 ft and above can drive them. Women in India are mostly 5 ft or 5.1 ft in height. We have been trying to bring about a change in this and have spoken to bus manufacturers as well. We are hoping some change takes place,” explains Vadera who, in 2017, seeded the Non-Traditional Livelihood Network, a collective of 32 organisations and individuals that make training and market opportunities available to marginalised women in diverse professions like masonry, house painting, plumbing, carpentry, and, of course, driving.

Change starts at home

Talking about change, it is visible in the homes of several Sakha cab drivers. Take, for instance, 28-year-old Sufina from Purnea district in Bihar who has been on the job for the past four years. Though she has an awfully busy day, which starts with filling water for the household from the community tap and sending the children to school, if she gets late dropping off a ride from the airport, she does not have to get stressed about the situation on the home front.

“My husband chips in with looking after the children and helping in the house,” she says, with a smile. The couple also share all expenses. “This has helped me save up and I have also bought my own house,” she says.

Vadera has found the change emerging slowly over the years as Azad works with the community to give support to women and also runs a ‘men for gender justice’ programme for male family members. “It all takes time. The core idea is to equip women with transformational skills, give them confidence to take on the challenge, impart ethics and gender justice and incorporate critical skills,” she says.

And Sakha, like the women it trains and empowers, is also spreading its wings. It is present in Jaipur, Indore, Delhi and Kolkata, but will soon reach Bhubaneswar, Lucknow and Chennai.

Published on March 07, 2020

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