Drivers Of Change

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Drivers Of Change

Sunday, 21 April 2019 | Khushi Pal

Drivers Of Change

Khushi Pal meets up with young and old women who may be from the economically weaker section of society but have broken tight gender norms and intense societal bias to earn a living for themselves as cab drivers

The weight of bangles pulls her down each time she aims higher, while the red sindoor shouts out the duties she must abide by in her black and white life. Without a voice of her own, the only time she is heard is through her cries of help which haunt bleak corners of the country. This is the harsh reality of India.

According to an April 2016 report by IndiaSpend, only 27 per cent of women make it to the nation’s labour force. Out of this, the minuscule percentage of women from the rural areas is a wake-up call for society. According to the Annual Employment Survey conducted by Labour Bureau, only eight per cent rural women contribute to India’s working population. India had the second-lowest female labour force participation rate. In South Asia, as per a World Bank report, not much has changed over the years.

But there exists hope and solutions to eradicate this gender bias to an extent. The ‘Women on Wheels’ programme started in 2008 by the Delhi-based Azad Foundation, encourages women to find a voice to fight back their vulnerabilities  and live a dignified life.

Brahmi Chakravorty, one of the programme coordinators at Azad’s Greater Kailash branch in South Delhi, says: “Our ‘Women on Wheels’ programme empowers women with nominal economic and social capital to become professional and commercial chauffeurs.”

Rohini, 23, never imagined she would one day become a proud chauffeur. Young and independent, she has made her family proud. Eldest among three siblings, she works for Sakha as a commercial driver. Her father, a chef in South Africa, on learning about the programme and the opportunities it offers, encouraged her to apply for it. Rohini recalls being scared and uncertain as she had never driven before. The thought of her dainty and fragile body inside the heavy metal of any four-wheeler terrified her. But Rohini was one of the lucky few as she had all the support from her family, her father especially, she emphasizes.

“When I joined the programme, little did I know that my dedication will take me a long way. Six months into the programme, I found myself embracing the new sense of confidence it gave me. But it all did not come to me on a platter. I faced a lot of challenges to reach where I am today,” she says.

Juggling between college, studies, family and work, she was stressed for  time. Burdened with work, her vulnerability would kick in and break her down to the point she couldn’t take it any further. That’s when she would tell herself in her soft yet shrilly voice, ‘It is okay, Rohini. You can do this. Just a tough day, there’s a long road ahead’. And there did lie a long road ahead.

Rohini’s first job was at a café in the Capital. But it lasted for a short period as being a college student limited her. “Everything in life happens for a reason,” she tells you, looking back at her journey in Azad. The six-month training programme taught her more than what she learnt while preparing for those exams in school.

It took her four months to be ready to drive without fear. Recalling the first time she tried her hands on the wheel, she says: “Even though I had a trainer next to  me, I was numb. The only thing I could sense was fear”. But hard work and time, turned what she thought seemed impossible into a career for her. Today, her family and friends look at her with pride. Most importantly, when Rohini looks in the mirror, she sees a newer version of herself, one she always thrived to be but couldn’t. Each time she is stuck in traffic, amid chaotic life that breathes through Delhi, her eyes meet those of the strangers stopping beside her, looking at her with amusement.

“People are not used to seeing women chauffeurs. It feels good to show them that women are no less,” she tells you. Rohini believes that a woman is no less than a man, rather she is way more than he can ever be.

Azad has helped many young girls like Rohini as it aspires to challenge the norms that keep economically weak women at home. It helps build new role models for girl children and other women who have been made invisible in India’s urban economic growth.

Another inspiring story of a braveheart from Odisha’s Rautella district is here to be heard. This 40-year-old woman called Grace comes from a low-key conservative family. Married off in Ranchi at an early age, she has two sons with whom she now resides in Delhi.

A Grade 12th pass out, Grace did not have the opportunity to study further due to financial constraints. But she opened new doors and managed to get a job with the ‘Chetnalya NGO in Delhi where she worked as a teacher teaching primary class students.

She went on to work at the Honda factory taking care of technical work such as wiring. In the years before she enrolled herself with the Women for Wheels programme, she switched jobs and grabbed every opportunity she found in the busy hustlebustle of the Capital. It was while she was working for a small firm called Lexar that she learnt about the programme through their mobilising strategy taking place in the region. Fascinated by what it had to offer, the child in her who always wanted to learn driving, knew this was the right calling.

After receiving a nod from her husband, she joined the programme in 2009 and has been a part of the Azad family ever since. However, she did not receive any emotional support from her husband who works outside town. He only gave her financial support.

The organisation took care of the paperwork as it provides complete assistance to women for enrollment; from financial aid to documentation. It took her nine months to achieve her permanent license and it wasn’t an easy ride. She failed twice yet it was her passion to have a better life that motivated her.

“It became exhausting after a point. I was not able to clear the tests and the uncertainty of it bothered me,” she says. Moreover, a lack of emotional support from her husband made her feel like a lone warrior in this battle. But determination kept her going until she finally succeeded in her tests and landed herself with a job offer.

Much like Rohini, Grace too had to face challenges of her own, at the workplace and home. “Sometimes customers behave rudely. They underestimate the capabilities of a woman driver,” says Grace, recalling her first client. Yet she has held on to this job for a decade now. It has taught her how to be tough, made her independent and most importantly, given her a dignified livelihood, one she is proud of.

“Today driving is like a piece of cake for me. I know it so well and it gives me immense pleasure each time I put my hands on the steering wheel,” she tells you.

“I have even done night shifts and the fear within me doesn’t exist anymore,” she adds. It’s time for her next shift and donning the pink and blue uniform she drives away leaving behind a message for the society to reflect upon.

Azad has extended its arms to rural women in Delhi, Indore, Jaipur, Bangalore, Kolkata and Ahmedabad. The organisation works across religious and social divides to enable resource poor women to empower themselves by engaging them in viable non-traditional livelihoods options.

It has helped transform lives of more than 1000 women across the country and continue doing so.

Their work becomes even more relevant in a society where more and more women joining the workforce with mounting safety concerns. Partying till late at night has become a strict no-no. Off-late, however, many companies have introduced cab services driven by women for women. So, next time, before you turn down an invite for a late-night party because of safety issues, think of calling a cab driven by Grace or any other woman.

After various incidents across cities like Bengaluru and Delhi, many cab companies are hiring women so that they can extend this service to women who are not only working late at night in MNCs, but also to women foreign tourists who arrive late at night. One is told that most of the women cab drivers do night duty. These women do know how to handle all kinds of awkward situations. But for most part the passengers are taken in by the fact that they are being driven around by a woman.

It begins with the training — how to drive, how to change the tyre and do small repairs in case of a breakdown. They are also taught how to deal with the bias that women can’t be commercial drivers.

But it is not an easy ride for these women.  Once the training is over, they need to be employed in homes for a year; one can’t get a commercial license otherwise.

Also many SUVs and other cars don’t have a seat adjustment. Since the average height of these women is 5’2 it becomes difficult for them. Then there are other little riders — employers have to provide a bathroom facility. But for most part, the women drivers are able to adjust to whatever the situation since they can earn anywhere between ` 15,000 to `25,000 as commercial drivers. This is a big amount considering that some of the women come from homes where the maximum salary is `5,000 a month. So they end up being the primary breadearners for the family.

Shanno Begum, a 40-year-old has been driving around Delhi for seven years, says: “I earn anywhere between Rs 40,000 to Rs 50,000 a month. This is when I driver only during peak hours — 6 am to 10 am and 4 pm to 9 pm. The timings help me; I can go back home to have lunch and take a loo break. The flexible timings make it possible for me to look after my home as well,” Shanno Begum tells you.

Of course there are instances where other male drivers try to intimidate her. But this owner of a Honda Amaze says that she has learnt to ignore.

“It has been so long since I have been driving, so I know how to deal with an awkward situation. I lock the car; I have a GPS navigation system to help me find my way on routes that I don’t know,” Shanno says.

The Azad Foundation has helped transform lives of more than 1,000 women across the country and continue doing so.

Ferrying women safe and sound

She was very young when her family decided to shift from Kolkata to Delhi in search of a job. Even though the family has land back home, there was not enough cash to meet daily expenses.

For Tumpa, now 21, this move to the Capital was an eye-opener. Soon the problems of the big city caught up with the family and it decided to shift back. Things weren’t better there either and two years later, they were back in Delhi. The two-year gap in her education meant she couldn’t get admission in any school in Delhi. Also, the family’s financial situation didn’t permit her to study further. Her father is a salesperson, her mother cooks at h homes and the younger brother works at a cyber cafe. Her elder sister is married.

But Tumpa never gave up and enrolled in the Open School to clear her Class X and then XII exams. It was when the family shifted to Mayur Vihar Phase-I in Delhi that Tumpa came to know of a driving institute run by a woman. Tumpa learnt how to drive a car, got a licence and was offered a job. But the traffic situation scared her. That was when she heard of the organisation Pillion that was offering jobs to women who knew how to ride a bike. Enlisting the help of her neighbour who had a Scooty, she learnt how to drive and was ready in a couple of months.

“It has been around a year that I have been ferrying women from the Karol Bagh Metro station to Jhandewalan and nearby areas. I earn around  `12,000 a month and now contribute to the family income that stands at `35,000 a month,” Tumpa says. She is the first bike taxi driver in the Capital in a fleet of 60.

“Seeing how much I earn, other girls want to do what I am doing. Even the lady who taught me how to drive the bike wants to join,” Tumpa tells you.

The good thing is that Tumpa only ferries women and has a 9 am to 6 pm shift, hence safety concerns are addressed. For a ride up to a km, the charge is `20, after that it is `5 per km. In a day, if Tumpa does 10 rides, she gets `15 per ride, for 15 rides she gets `17 and for a maximum of 20 she gets `18.

Like all girls her age, Tumpa is all set to get married later this year. “I would like to continue what I am doing but it will now depend on my husband and what he wants and where we will be living. I will, of course, convince my in-laws to let me work par aapko toh pata hai, humare yahan sasural walley kaise hotey hain,” Tumpa says.

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