From vulnerability to empowerment: how women are driving change through unconventional occupations

From aggregating demand for women drivers to facilitating more women to take up the profession, and creating a conducive working environment for women drivers, India should embark on a journey to better the balance of women in mobility, and thereby, in all spheres of life.

It was 114-years-ago that Suzanne Briere, the French wife of industrialist Ratanji Dadabhoy Tata, drove a car through the streets of Bombay, and presumably surprised the society then. A century later, while more Indian women have taken to driving, the concept of women chauffeurs still invites disbelief and patronising awe.

Driving is often portrayed as a hazardous profession with brutal working conditions, long hours on the road, and little time for domestic life, inconsistent with societal expectations of gender roles of women. No wonder that only one percent of all female-held driving licenses are commercial (MoRTH, 2018). While the recent advances in road, automobile, and mapping technology have contributed to the mitigation of physical dangers, new age professional driving models, offering location and time flexibility, and the digitisation of urban mobility through smartphones have changed the very nature of the profession, and the concerns relating to a woman’s personal safety and the profession’s propriety for women abound.

Shift the narrative from women “can’t” to women “will”

A lack of safety in mobility, both real and perceived, for both woman - the driver, and woman - the commuter alike, is indeed a challenge. The need for large-scale cultural reforms to change behaviours notwithstanding, good design of public spaces can create conditions to prevent instances of violence and allay safety concerns of women (WRI, 2015). At the same time, it is not enough for the sector to stay gender neutral by enhancing safety for all; there needs to be intentional gender inclusion. This involves improving the representation of women in transport jobs, as women driver-entrepreneurs. This would shift the narrative from women “can’t” due to lack of skill - to women “will”, through empowerment.

A four-pronged approach for India to increase the representation of women in the mobility sector.

What can India do to substantially increase the proportion of women in the driving profession? We offer a four-pronged approach.

One, aggregate demand

It is essential to employ women in jobs once they are trained and in scale. Since their inception in the early 2010s, app-based mobility services alone have created 15 lakh livelihood opportunities. These include driving opportunities across various vehicle modes including bikes, autos, rickshaws, taxis and cabs, mini-buses, chartered buses, etc. Such driving “jobs” are in abundance with over 10 lakh more opportunities getting created by 2020 (Arvind Gupta, CEO, MyGov, 2019).

Further, women drivers are highly sought to be attached to mobility platforms. As evidenced by the Shell Foundation, there are indeed multiple businesses actively trying to onboard women drivers - ranging from four-wheeler aggregators like Azad, Priyadarshini Cabs, and Women Cabs, to three-wheeler models like SMV Green Solutions, M-Auto, and two-wheeler models like Bikxie Pink, among others.

This implies there is more impetus for women to learn to drive, given the opportunities in the sector. Continuing this trend, states should enable and encourage both the government and private sectors to commit to mainstreaming gender in mobility by creating an increasing number of driving opportunities for women.

Two, remove entry barriers to become a professional driver

The startup ecosystem generally moves faster than legislation, and this is especially true of the mobility sector. This makes the sector riskier to invest in. Driving is also a high-risk livelihood option for women due to societal perceptions. There is a need, therefore, for not only supportive policies but for immediate implementation of existing regulations at the state level.

  1. Women with private licenses should drive commercial vehicles too: A key example is of an entry restriction on newly skilled drivers equipped with only private licenses. There is a distinction made between private and commercial driving licenses that mandates a one-year waiting period for holders of private licenses before they can start driving commercially. Although this was struck down by the Supreme Court recently, and was followed by a notification by the Ministry of Road Transport and Highways, the restriction continues in some states, rendering the motive of newly trained and skilled women drivers futile. States, by removing this entry barrier, can make mobility equitable and accessible to all.
  2. De-risk the occupation for women through innovative approaches: Businesses trying to increase gender representation are currently unable to scale due to various challenges including the lack of financial linkages for vehicle ownership models and time taken to obtain driving licenses for first-time women drivers. A report by the International Finance Corporation points out how over 90 percent of the finance requirements of women-owned businesses are met through informal sources, despite women-owned enterprises contributing to 3.09 percent of industrial output and employing over eight million people across the country. Institutional financing of women micro-entrepreneurs, therefore, needs to be provided through innovations in the ecosystem. Such measures to remove entry barriers will help bring the cost of creation of female drivers at par with male drivers.

Three, create a conducive working environment for women drivers

  1. Increase the number of public washrooms, and sensitise the ecosystem: Investment in an increased number of public washrooms across the city, especially at major transit stops and toll plazas, and making such places more vibrant with increased police patrolling and commercial activity would enhance the personal safety of the “workplace” of professional drivers. Urban areas particularly suffer from a lack of access to public washrooms evidenced by the meager number of public toilets per 1,000 people - 0.11 in Chennai, 0.07 in Bengaluru, 0.06 in Mumbai, 0.03 in Delhi, and 0.01 in Kolkata. Despite such low access, 86 percent of the Rs 17,843 crore Swachh Bharat Mission budget of 2018 is allocated for building public toilets in rural areas. Since jobs in rural sectors are mostly home-based or agricultural, the requirement of public toilets and workplace toilets are minimal as compared to urban areas (ORF, 2019). Sensitisation of the ecosystem including traffic police, male drivers, transport department personnel, financial institutions, etc., would create a supportive environment for women drivers.
  2. Leverage technology to enhance safety and security: Mobility startups, including app-based aggregators, for their part, are creating an enabling environment for women to become professional drivers. From facilitating access to institutional credit for women to become driver-entrepreneurs by owning vehicle assets to providing insurance support to the self and family members, and securing safety of the driver-partners and customers alike through emergency buttons on the app and the vehicle, mobile CCTV cameras, 24 x 7 on-call support, and even using Artificial Intelligence (AI) to enhance safety, platforms are increasingly becoming empathetic and committed to the cause of women empowerment.

Four, invest in training partners

Skilling agencies around the country already have a successful model of training young migrant workers - women and men alike - in professional driving. They offer complementary training in spoken English, financial and digital literacy, knowledge of the city, and self-defence. We need more skilling agencies for women who look at unconventional avenues such as mobility jobs, and such training models need to be replicated across the country to realise the potential women have. Professionalisation of driving through skilling centres for women should become the new “normal” from 2019 onwards.

Mobility - the driver of economic growth of the country - can help increase Indian women’s labour force participation.

On the eve of Labour Day, 2019, the country should embark on such a four-pronged journey to bettering the balance in mobility, and thereby, all spheres of life. Mobility, after all, is the driver of economic growth of a country. By improving accessibility to mobility for women - both as users and drivers - the country can aim to increase female labour force participation, a trend that is sadly on the decline today.

With the mobility sector particularly getting increasingly digitised and creating more livelihood opportunities than ever before, the government should spare no time in developing mobility sector specific gender-responsive policies, keeping economic empowerment of women at the core. Professionally trained women chauffeurs would raise standards for all drivers, thereby making them agents of change. The time is not far where women drivers are specifically requested, as they simply tend to be better trained and skilled than others.

(Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of YourStory.)

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