Growing up in Mumbai, Havovi Wadia moved with ease through the city, never thinking twice about travelling alone at any hour of the day or night. Over the last few years, however, her movements have changed. “I travel every month and usually leave home at 4:00 am for early flights,” says Wadia, who works with a non-governmental organisation. “I invariably return to Mumbai on a late flight and I worry every time about getting home safely at night.” Wadia’s family insists on staying on the phone with her until she reaches home.
After the infamous Nirbhaya (‘the fearless one’) case of December 16, 2012, when a 23-year-old medical student was gang raped and murdered on a moving bus on the streets of Delhi, female commuters like Wadia are hesitant to take public transport. Many have turned to taxi services that can be booked online. But in December last year, news broke of a 27-year-old woman who was raped by a taxi driver for Uber, an online startup transportation company. “Now, I have become uncomfortable with using these fleet services,” says Wadia. “I worry constantly.”
Given that India’s public transport system is rated the world’s fourth most dangerous for women and laws have largely proven ineffective in combating sexual violence against women, it seems there is one solution for female commuters fearing for their safety: transportation by and for women.
Transport services catering only to women popped up nearly four years ago in India. Lately, the number of services has mushroomed, with several states announcing plans for women-only transportation.
Officials in Gurgaon, near Delhi, say they will help women interested in buying taxis and running a women-only service and in January this year, a company called Meru Eve launched a fleet of 20 cabs in Delhi, all equipped with panic buttons and pepper spray. Delhi police also trained the drivers in self-defense in order to protect themselves and their passengers.
Mumbai-based Priyadarshini Cabs boasts of being among the first such services in the market. The company was launched in 2010 and business is booming, with five new customers every day over the last three months. “We started with just two or three taxis and a meager 10 calls a day,” recalls CEO Susiieben Shah. “Today we have 25 taxis and receive a minimum of 75 calls in a 24-hour shift.”
Kerala’s SheTaxis was launched in 2013 and CEO Dr PTM Sunish says the Nirbhaya rape case “brought home the need to ensure maximum safety for women” on the streets. “In Kerala, women are moving everywhere for work and we wanted to find a way to guarantee their security,” he says. SheTaxis started out with just five taxis in one city but today, 50 of the company’s vehicles ply the roads in four cities in Kerala. All SheTaxis are equipped with wireless tracking gear and panic buttons linked to call centres as well as police control rooms, ambulance and fire services.
For 42-year-old marketing executive Priya Nair the service is a blessing. “I live far from my office and work in shifts, with very late work hours,” she explains. “Thanks to She Taxis, I don’t have to worry about how I’ll get home from work. I feel so safe in these taxis that I’ll often take a nap on the ride home,” she says, laughing. A school counselor Aarathi Nair adds, “In a country like ours where there are so many incidents of violence against women in public, this is the only way to feel safe while travelling in the city.”
SheTaxis’s entrepreneurship model sets it apart from other such ventures as taxi drivers are also owners of their vehicles, thus truly making it a service by and for women. Razia, 36, says that getting behind the wheel in her SheTaxi has been life-changing. “I make INR25,000 a month now,” she says. “It gives me great pride to be successful at something that most people see as a ‘man’s job’.”
However, the road to success has not been as smooth for some companies. Female drivers in Kerala have the advantage of a higher literacy rate and efficient government in their state, leading to greater acceptance, while drivers in Mumbai and Delhi routinely face criticism or ridicule.
COO of New Delhi-based Sakha Cabs Deepali Bharadwaj says the company’s female drivers are routinely harassed. Launched in 2009, the company is linked to Azad Foundation, a non-profit organisation which empowers underprivileged women who are victims of domestic violence, training them to enter professions traditionally closed off to women. “Road transport officials keep our drivers waiting for months for a license, while licenses are granted to male drivers at the earliest,” she says.
“Men say, ‘women cannot drive’ or ‘what will we do if women start driving?’” says Shanti, a 33-year-old Sakha driver. “I tell them that maybe it is time for men to start doing women’s jobs.” And if a verbal put-down doesn’t work, any Sakha driver can utilise the martial arts training given to each employee. Bharadwaj adds proudly, “Our drivers have learned to expect biases and handle them.”
“The most common employment option for women is a job as domestic help,” says Bharadwaj. “With Sakha, we wanted to break the mould of a male bastion. For women from marginalised backgrounds, driving a car is very empowering, and they are charting unknown territory.” Shanti says she took a job with Sakha after her husband refused to support her and their three daughters. “The self-defense techniques they taught us gave me confidence and after I began earning an income, I found the courage to walk out of my abusive 13-year marriage.”
In order to slowly maneuver their way into this male-dominated profession, these transport companies have sought legitimisation on official levels. Shah says the Bombay High Court was moved in order to have women-only taxis included in the pre-paid category and after three years of campaigning, the government agreed to reserve permits for female drivers.
There’s still much ground to cover, however. “The government must ensure the same process is followed when it comes to issuing licenses to men and women,” says Bharadwaj.
For initiatives such as Sakha or SheTaxi to succeed, it is crucial that the companies operate as business ventures and not social enterprises or not-for-profit organisations. It is only then that the companies may begin to campaign effectively against a lack of infrastructure holding back growth.
For instance, one critical issue that faces female drivers is the lack of public toilets in cities. “Where are these women supposed to go while they’re on duty?” asks Bharadwaj. “If the government wants this transportation service to be organised and effective, it needs to address shortcomings such as this. Otherwise the companies will not be able to meet the rising demand for female-only transportation.”
While India has made significant headway despite the challenges, Pakistan does not seem to be too far behind. The recently amended anti-rape laws in the country, which promise to punish even those who hinder prosecution, shame the survivor and trivialise the crime, is perhaps the first step towards securing a safe passage for women hesitant to report a sexual assault.
This article appeared in the Express Tribune on March 8, 2015