One of India's rare taxi services for women has seen its bookings rise dramatically since the brutal rape on a bus that made international headlines
Chandni elegantly steers her white taxi cab through New Delhi’s snarled traffic. She slips past the dented buses, swerves around pedestrians, honks at the chaotic moves of the rickshaw drivers, and is one of the few motorists to actually stop for a red light.
Then she does a precision job of parking the car – and gets rewarded by having lots of people staring at her.
“They’re looking at me like I’m some apparition," she says with a laugh, her ponytail swinging.
A woman behind the steering wheel in India is still not commonplace, not even in the capital. But a woman driving a taxi is a sensation.
“I never worried that I couldn’t do it,” says the 22-year-old with an air of self-confidence. She is a driver for Sakha Consulting Wings, the only company in New Delhi that offers taxi services by women for women.
“Men may only enter the car if they are accompanied by a woman,” says managing director Nayantara Janardhen about her company founded five years ago together with the public service sister organisation Azad Foundation.
“We want to offer women living on the periphery of society an opportunity to earn income and a chance to rise up and not just be kept in stereotype jobs like sewing and knitting,” Janardhen says.
The success has been astonishing: because these women often are the main breadwinners at home. They may also now have a say in family decisions.
The training is free of charge and on average takes seven months. “Normally in India you don’t have to take driving lessons,” Janardhen says. “But as children, these women never even sat in a car and so don’t know any of the rules”
Besides driving lessons, the women are also taught first aid, English and self-defence, along with their legal rights and sex education.
“The aim is for them to become well-rounded professionals and well-rounded personalities,” she adds. In addition, a company employee, Devi Banerjee, accompanies the women on their appointment rounds with India’s feared bureaucracy.
“If they went by themselves, they would get shunted around and not be taken seriously,” Banerjee says.
The organisation also helps the women to get an insurance policy and to open bank accounts, even showing them how to use their bank cards to draw cash.
Besides the 10 female taxi drivers, there are 50 others who are serving as private chauffeurs for Sakha Consulting. A newcomer to this team is Gita, 20, who always dreamed of driving a car but never thought she would ever get behind the wheel.
“When other women see me now, it should encourage them,” she says.
The taxi company can’t complain about a lack of business. Ever since the horrific group rape and killing of a young woman on a public bus in December, Janardhen says her mobile phone hasn’t stopped ringing. “Since then, we have had 30 to 40 per cent more bookings.”
In a recently published survey by the women's rights organisation ICRW, 95 per cent of women in New Delhi fear sexual violence once they leave the safety of their homes. One-fourth said they never leave home alone after dark.
“We must win back the public space,” Janardhen says.
Sakha’s female drivers may also use the taxis for private purposes, but Chandni rarely makes use of the opportunity. “I don’t particularly like to go shopping,” she says.
The petite woman with a backpack and wearing gym shoes has another dream - she wants to become a bus driver. To date, no woman has yet steered a public bus through New Delhi’s streets.
“Not yet,” Chandni says.