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Delhi slum women hail a taxi to equality

New Delhi — A battered housewife, a Muslim widow and an illiterate mother of four are among a group of Indian women looking to carve out a living by breaking into the male preserve of New Delhi taxi drivers.

Hailing from some of the poorest quarters of the Indian capital, they are part of plans to launch the city’s first radio taxi-service run by women, in time for the October 2010 Commonwealth Games.

The project is the brainchild of Meenu Vadera of the Azad Foundation, a voluntary group that works with disadvantaged women whose employment prospects — if they exist at all — are usually limited to the world of domestic help.

"We have trained one batch of nine women and the training of another batch of 11 is underway," said Vadera, who aims to have five taxis on the road by February and a fleet of 20 by the time the Games begin.

"I was looking at a programme that would combine a livelihood for the girls with the idea of having women cab-drivers who will provide safe transport to working women in Delhi."

Of all major Indian cities, the capital ranks worst in terms of violence against women, with more than 4,300 registered cases in 2007-08, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

To ensure their own safety, the women have received some basic self-defence instruction as part of their training at a professional drivers’ school run by India’s largest car manufacturer, Maruti Suzuki India Ltd.

Supplementing these are classes in grooming, etiquette and spoken English.

"The goal is to establish a company with the women as stakeholders. This way it does not look like a charity but a business run collectively," Vadera said.

India’s emergence as a global economic power has done little for millions of unskilled or illiterate women for whom menial work as domestics or care-givers remains a chief source of regular but often underpaid employment.

The work is generally unregulated and unprotected, leaving them vulnerable to harassment and exploitation.

"Some come from families where only the menfolk work," said Poonam Bala, a Delhi University Sociology professor.

"For others, their background is such that they are totally unprepared to enter the professional job market."

Rita, 24, ran away from her marriage and home after suffering seven years of abuse at the hands of her parents-in-law.

Living at the home of a friend in Delhi, Rita saw the female taxi project as a way out of a social and economic dead end.

"I jumped at the idea," she said. "It would give me independence and the ability to support myself".

Shanno Begum, a 32-year-old Muslim widow, signed up for the programme last year.

"My husband died three years ago. I had three children and my parents-in-law to support. As a private nurse, I used to earn 4,500 rupees (90 dollars) a month for a 24/7 job," Shanno said.

"Now, I will earn the same amount working eight hours and can devote more time to my children."

For Ekta, a 28-year-old mother of four, the taxi project opened doors that she had thought closed to her as an illiterate woman married into a conservative family.

"Persuading my husband to let me work was very difficult," she said. "Now I feel empowered as if I have my own identity other than a wife and mother."

The project has not been without its problems.

With the commercial license necessary to drive a taxi-cab requiring a year-long wait, Vadera has been trying to find short-term chauffeur employment for her fully trained drivers — with little success.

"I underestimated the gender bias," Vadera said, citing repeated questions from potential employers as to whether women could be trusted to drive safely and turn up to work on time.

"Despite my assurances, they decide against women drivers. This is despite the fact that records show women are more careful than male drivers — they obey traffic rules, don’t drink and drive, don’t get into brawls on the road," she said.

Some of Delhi’s male cabbies, unimpressed by the idea of an all-woman taxi service, have decided the best reaction is one of collective ridicule that panders to a disparaging stereotype of women drivers.

"It’s bad enough having women behind the wheel in private cars," said Pamma Singh, who runs a taxi company with his two brothers.

"They take ages to reverse, negotiate turnings, to park properly. So what kind of challenge will they be to us? Just be prepared for more chaos on the roads," he said.

Another of Vadera’s recruits, Heena Khan, 22, said she treated such remarks with contempt but was still angered by her inability to get a part-time chauffeuring position.

"It is disheartening that after all this hard work, we still can’t get jobs because we are women. I am the sole breadwinner and no work means no food," said Khan, who has 10-member dependent family.