Meet India's courageous women cab drivers

Shanno Begum never dreamt that she would become a cab driver. A single mother, she worked as a cook and caregiver to finance her childrens education. But the irregular work made it hard to plan.

But when she heard that the non-profit Azad Foundation in Delhi offered a six-month driving course, she applied. "It was a risky move since I wouldnt be able to earn anything for those six months," the 39-year-old says. "But I knew that I could get regular work afterwards."

After completing her training, Begum worked briefly as a private chauffeur, and within a year, became the first driver to join Sakha, one of the early women-only cab services in Delhi.

Given my lack of education, I could only have cooked or cleaned houses," says Begum, now an Uber driver. "But now every client gives me respect. I feel proud of being a driver.



This year, cab aggregators like Uber and Ola Cabs have announced measures to provide jobs for 50,000 women cab drivers.

Image: Rafiq Maqbool/Associated Press

Begum is part of a growing tribe of women cab drivers in India who are challenging a male-dominated profession and a traditional worldview that hinders women access to urban public spaces a revolution furthered by Uber and Ola Cabs, the two biggest taxi aggregators in India, which earlier this year announced plans to employ women cab drivers.

If Uber and Ola follow through with these plans, women's employment as cab drivers could get a major boost. In March, Uber said the company would create 100,0000 jobs for women drivers worldwide by 2020 as part of a global partnership with UN Women. In India, the company promises to enroll 50,000 women drivers. The women-centered initiative is especially significant since the company has been sharply criticized for having inadequate safety measures following allegations that male drivers had raped and molested women passengers.

Until now, most women-only cab operators such as Delhis Sakha and Meru Eve, the Kerala-based SheTaxi, and Mumbai-based Priyadarshini Cabs and Viira Cabs have been operating at a local level and on a small scale. Sakha, where Begum learnt the ropes, and its parent organisation Azad Foundation, is responsible for training a significant number of women in commercial driving, customer communication and self-defence.



Sakha Cabs is one of the first taxi services for women by women in India. Sakha's parent company, the Azad Foundation, also runs a driving school to train women as commercial drivers.

Image: Doreen Fiedler/Associated Press

According to Ubers India division, there are about 200 active commercially-licensed women drivers across India. Currently, a quarter of these work with Uber, a number the company hopes to increase to more than 500 by the end of the year.

India is the first international market where Uber has introduced a programme offering vehicle financing for drivers with low down payments and rates. Applicants also undergo training at iCare Life in Delhi and Mumbai with classes on driving, traffic rules, self-defence, basic English, customer communication and navigation on Ubers app.

Ola Cabs, Ubers main competitor in India, has also promised to add at least 50,000 women drivers to its platform. While the Indian company declined to give any figures for its current women drivers, it is collaborating with local NGOs and banks for training, assistance in getting licenses and purchasing vehicles, and securing jobs.





Maya Devi (L) and Santosh Soni have been working as private chauffeurs and commercial cab drivers since 2008.

Image: Sonam Joshi



Several women have already signed up. I needed money to educate my four kids properly, Maya Devi, another Uber driver says. So I thought driving would be a good skill.

Like Begum, Devi and her friend Santosh Soni started driving in 2008 to fund their childrens education. Since then, they have introduced other women in their neighbourhood to the training schools being run by Uber and Sakha.

A lot of girls come up to us to find out where we work and how they can find similar employment, Devi says. Many women riders also tell me that they are proud of my work and that their daughters will be safe with us."

Yet, it isnt easy being a woman driver in Delhi, and there are frequent incidents of male drivers being rude or provocative. Sometimes on the road, boys will try to race with us or stop us and then ask us who gave us the license, Devi says. The other day as I was taking a turn, the driver deliberately blocked my car and refused to move. He asked me to back my car and overtake. But I was firm that I would abide by the rules.

For companies like Uber and Ola, it hasn't always been easy to mobilise women drivers. There are social and cultural barriers to women going into the streets alone or working at odd hours. Safety remains a concern as well, and most training courses include lessons in self-defence. There's also a helpline for all the drivers who can decide when and where they want to work, according to Uber spokesperson Deval Delivala says. Uber also allows the drivers to view passengers' ratings and refuse anyone they feel uncomfortable about.

I often discuss the issues of womens safety with my daughters, Begum says. Ultimately, we need to become self-reliant and enable women to become stronger and deal with any situation.

In turn, drivers such as Begum, Devi and Soni point out that Uber gives them considerably higher earnings and flexible work timings as opposed to a fixed monthly salary. Devi and Soni earn between 20,000 and 25,000 rupees per month and both expect to own a vehicle through Ubers financing program.

For Begum, driving has meant securing financial independence. Growing up in a large family with eight siblings in the east Delhi neighbourhood of Trilokpuri, she dropped out of school in class seven and was married in 1992. After joining Uber this year, she was able fulfill her long-standing dream of buying a car.

As people see more women drivers on the road, there is a shift in their attitude, Begum says. There is a big difference between 2008 and now. People used to ask me, why did you chose this line of work? Now, they congratulate me.

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