Women taking the wheel in India to drive their own destinies
By training and hiring only female chauffeurs, a taxi service in Mumbai provides a safe service for women
The traffic light turns green and Rupa Swali pulls out onto the Western Express Highway in Mumbai, careful to avoid the swarm of motorbikes and autorickshaws zipping past. Suddenly an unruly bus runs the light in the other direction and careens straight towards her, laying on its horn. Swali is used to this and slams her breaks just in time, then glances at the passenger in the back seat to check for a reaction. Fortunately, the woman seems absorbed in her iPhone and unaware of the danger just averted.
Navigating the jungle of Mumbai’s traffic has become second nature for Swali, who drives a taxi for a living. But until about four years ago, she had never sat in a car, let alone driven one.
That was when she decided to leave her physically abusive husband of 19 years. Even though she was born and brought up in Mumbai, India’s commercial capital, she was unskilled and unsure of how to earn a living. She felt lonely, scared and helpless. To top it off, she had a teenage daughter to care for.
“I wanted a job that would provide me with dignity along with financial security,” she said.
At around the same time, a management professional named Preeti Sharma Menon was looking to set up an organization that would help women become selfreliant. Of the nearly six million women living in this city, about half are daily wage earners living on the streets or in tiny shanties.
Menon created Viira Cabs (“Viira” means courageous woman) in June 2011 to provide sus- tained, dignified employment to underprivileged women. She had launched the Viira Motor Training Program six months earlier; Swali was one of the first batch of 200 female drivers it taught to drive. After a rigorous six-month training program, free of charge, 80 earned their licenses. Several have driven for Viira Cabs ever since. (The training program has since been reduced to 12 weeks.)
Today, Viira Cabs has a fleet of 16 eco-friendly cabs and about 20 female drivers who earn an average of 15,000 rupees a month (US$240), working day and night shifts. Even though there are a few other women-drivers-only taxi services in the country, Viira is the only one that provides comprehensive training, including grooming, etiquette and self defense. Every driver is equipped with pepper spray and a GPS system with panic alerts.
The service provides more than just skills and jobs. In a country where violence against women is prevalent, it provides a source of comfort for female passengers. According to the government, a woman is raped every 20 minutes in India. And these are just the reported figures.
India catapulted to infamy in December 2012 after the brutal gang rape of a student in a moving bus in Delhi. She later died of her injuries. Two years later, a 27-year-old executive was allegedly raped by an Uber driver in New Delhi; the trial is ongoing.
“Given the background of women’s safety in the country, I think a woman-drivers-only cab service brought relief to many women who commute alone, especially at night,” said Menon.
Her instincts were right. Viira has hundreds of loyal customers, such as Revati Sharma, 32, who lives in a suburb of Mumbai. “My parents are increasingly paranoid about me traveling alone to work,” she said. “But I work in an adver- tising agency where there are no set hours. When I returned at 3 in the morning I used to see my mother waiting anxiously for me at the door. Now I call Viira when I have to return from late nights. And, frankly, I am also much more relaxed when a woman is driving. I can doze off to sleep.”
Senior citizens and differentlyabled people are also a large percentage of Viira’s customers, claiming that female drivers are more thoughtful, helping them in and out of the cars.
Once the least respected members of their families and communities, these women have now become among the most important. Their income is helping to fund their children’s education; Swali’s daughter is now a veterinary doctor. The drivers keep the cars with them, and when Swali drives her taxi into the semi-slum where she lives, her neighbors treat her like a celebrity.
But Menon said there are chal- lenges as well, such as the cost of training and the high rate of attrition. “The women we employ come from low- income backgrounds. Most of them are the primary caregivers in their families, so whenever there is an illness or death in the family, they are the first to quit their jobs.” While looking for other investors, Menon is keeping the operation afloat with her own money. She might have to shut it down despite the evidence that it is sorely needed. Already, she feels bad that she has to turn customers away. “There is more demand than we can meet,” she said.
Viira Cabs is a taxi service for women, by women based in Mumbai, India.