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Steering through the gender barrier

Manisha Pande  |  New Delhi 

A Delhi-based NGO is training women to be chauffeurs but finding them jobs requires getting round deep-seated prejudice.

Chandani, 19, can change flat tyres effortlessly, manoeuvre through New Delhi’s maddening traffic and read maps with ease. But she isn’t an upper middle class career girl with the benefit of a college education; she lives in Govindpuri, a resettlement colony in south Delhi, and has studied till class 10 .

As a chauffeur to a World Bank employee in south Delhi, she earns Rs 4,500 a month. Now, she’s looking forward to turning 20 in a few months when she will be eligible to apply for a commercial driver’s licence —her ultimate goal.

She’s also the role model for many young girls in the slums and low-income colonies of New Delhi who are looking for higher-paid jobs outside their conventional “gender” roles — tailoring, house-maid and so on.

Helping them is Azad Foundation, a not-for profit organisation registered in May 2008 to introduce driving as a remunerative job for Delhi’s resource-poor women.

“I always felt there was a glaring need for women drivers to cater to families with children and women. Women drivers are common the world over. London has its London Lady Mini Cabs Service, so why not here?” says Meenu Vadera, 45, founder of Azad Foundation.

So far, Azad Foundation has trained 32 women and, via sister concern Sakha Consulting Wings Pvt Ltd, has placed 11 of them. Sitting in her south Delhi office, Vadera, a London School of Economics graduate who has worked on women issues for over 20 years, is now coordinating the fourth batch of 11 women. “We started with one full-time volunteer and now with financial contributions from friends and family, we have grown into a team of four full-time people. Oil major Shell provided seed support to our initiative under its corporate social responsibility (CSR) wing,” she says.

Most of the women who enroll for the programme get to know about it through Azad’s outreach campaign, which includes street plays. After enrolling, the girls go through a seven-month intensive programme that trains them as professional drivers.

The first step is towards helping them clear a 20-minute written exam to acquire a learners’ licence after which they are sent to the Maruti Training School for a month. Maruti provides free driving training to women trainees eligible under its CSR initiative (this covers girls who have completed their education till class 10 and are in the age group 18-30 years). For others, Azad Foundation pays a nominal fee.

“We also have our own in-house training that helps the girls familiarise themselves with the vehicle, daily maintenance, map reading and managing emergencies,” explains Vadera. They are also given language and grooming classes.

Since their work profile includes night shifts, the trainee drivers are taught self defence techniques by the Crime Against Women Cell of Delhi Police.

“Once they acquire a certificate from the Maruti Training School, we train them further with two of our in-house instructors and make sure they are road-ready before we send them for apprenticeship with Sakha,” she adds.

The placement cell has a database of around 150 clients. The 11 girls placed earn around Rs 4,500 a month, out of them two have acquired a commercial licence. The rest are carrying out their apprenticeship with individuals, NGOs, UN agencies and companies. “By September we will have five girls with a commercial license and that’s when we plan to launch Delhi’s first all women’s radio cab service,” says Vadera.

As the relatively low level of placement shows, getting the girls jobs is no mean task mostly because of ingrained societal prejudices. “There is a huge gender bias in the city so people are not really willing to consider women drivers. Also when people are looking for drivers, they look for someone with considerable experience which poses a problem for us, as our girls are relatively new in the profession” explains Nayantara Janardhan, placement coordinator, Sakha Consulting Wings Pvt Ltd.

So the real test for these girls lies outside their training school. Vadera admits that entering a hitherto male-dominated field has its challenges. “Though people find the idea of women drivers novel, shaking the deep-rooted notion of women being bad drivers is rather tough. People don’t seem to question male drivers and put a lot of faith in them. But for women it’s completely the opposite,” she rues.

Sheila Das, 30, who has just completed her training with Azad, feels the same way: “People have a lot of blind trust in male drivers. If there’s an accident, I am blamed even if it’s not my fault.” Meenu is awaiting her permanent licence and is currently training with Sakha.

Seema, 19, another apprentice with Sakha, agrees. “On my first job, I faced some problems with my employers. People are quick to dismiss women drivers as not good enough when compared to their male counterparts.”

However, ask them about the haphazard Delhi traffic and whether it scares them, they are quick to reply that they enjoy the traffic and take it up as a challenge to get better at driving and gain more confidence. “Anyone can drive smoothly on an empty road, it’s in the traffic that we can prove ourselves.” Sheila points out.

First Published: Fri, April 02 2010. 00:38 IST