Prompted to do something about the gender equality imbalance in India while confronting spaces that women have endured injustices, Meenu Vadera conceived of the Women on Wheels programme, which provides both safe transport solutions and capacity building by equipping women in India with the necessary training to become self-sustained personal drivers and chauffeurs.
We spoke to Meenu about her motivations, background and of course, the idea behind and impact of the Women on Wheels programme of Sakha. Read on to see what she had to say.
WHAT TRIGGERED YOU TO START YOUR BUSINESS?
There were several triggers that led to the starting Women on Wheels: First, the national census report of 2001 showed that in India, female foetuses were being systematically aborted, which led to an extremely adverse sex ratio between men and women. Even now, as per 2011 census, there are only 933 women per 1000 men in the country. New Delhi, where I was born and which is the capital of the country, lags far behind the national average with only 868 women to 1000 men. These statistics shocked me, as they shocked many people across the country. It brought home that a lot more work was needed to be done for gender equality, right here, in my hometown.
Second, as India liberalised over the decade of the 1990s, the news media was also impacted by it. By the end of this decade, we began having 24/7 television channels, delivering news on a regular basis. This only increased with social media. News regarding violence against women became louder and more visible. The media has particularly highlighted incidence of violence against women in public spaces prompting me to think on how public transportation could become safer for women.
Third, my experience of working in the development sector over the years where I observed that most livelihood options available for poor women across the world were still largely in traditional roles and mostly did not provide them with remunerative incomes. Finally, a personal need for me to stay based in Delhi with a small child and an ageing mother who needed to be looked after. Somewhere in my mind all these threads came together and through a series of conversations with friends, advisors and other experienced persons it matured into the idea of Women on Wheels. Eventually in 2008, I started Women on Wheels in Delhi.
WHAT DOES YOUR STARTUP DO?
Sakha provides safe and reliable transportation services for women by women across India. In doing so, Sakha provides its women chauffeurs with an unconventional, sustainable and dignified livelihood. As part of the "Women on Wheels" programme delivered in collaboration with the Azad Foundation, Sakha enables resource poor women in urban India to reclaim their dignity, rebuild their identity and be self-reliant, both socially and financially.
WHAT'S THE IMPACT OF YOUR PRODUCT/SERVICE ON THE TRAVEL INDUSTRY?
Transport: an inherent part of the travel industry, has traditionally been extremely gendered, not just in India but across the world. Women have traditionally not been providing transport services, and hence had a limited access to remunerative livelihoods in the growing transport sector within the travel industry.
From no market for women driven transportation services in India in 2008 when we started, Sakha created an emerging market, with its women chauffeurs having provided safe transport to over one million women across Delhi, Jaipur, Kolkata and Indore over the years. To date, Sakha has provided remunerative employment with dignity in transport to over 349 women.
With the growing demand for women driven transportation services, employment markets have also been slowly opening up with various public sector and business players now offering jobs to women drivers. Many women drivers trained through our Women on Wheels have been able to find jobs independently in the market. Based on information available to us, we estimate that overall, more than 500 Women on Wheels programme participants have been working as drivers to date. Women drivers are now finding jobs as cab drivers, chauffeurs employed by organisations and individuals, bus drivers, valets at prestigious institutions, driving instructors for other women, etc.
By providing safe transport to women, Sakha has also contributed to an increased mobility and safety of women in the cities, including foreign female travellers. 70% of Sakha clients have been foreign tourists.
WHAT RECENT MILESTONE(S) ARE YOU MOST PROUD OF?
In 2016, Sakha launched Sakha Cabs for Women by Women operations in Jaipur as well as the private chauffeur placement service in Kolkata and Indore. The operations in Jaipur have received a lot of media coverage.
In the last year, we have been able to break into the hotel industry. We facilitated employment for a number of women drivers with five-star hotels in Delhi, Indore and Kolkata. An exclusive chain of hotels in Delhi has also become a regular business partner using Sakha Cabs for Women by Women.
In 2017, we were able to appoint the first five female driving instructors for our Women on Wheels programme in Delhi and Jaipur from amongst senior drivers working with Sakha Cabs for Women by Women. This has been a very special achievement as it forms the first step for the communities, with which we work, to begin to take part and responsibility in delivering the Women on Wheels programme. This development has also opened up a new career pathway for senior women drivers.
Over the years, Sakha drivers have had the opportunity to meet and be acknowledged by a number of foreign dignitaries and Bollywood stars. In November 2017, they had an opportunity to meet, drive around and interact with HRH Duchess of Cornwall, Camilla, at the British High Commission in Delhi.
Improving one of the underpinning facilities of the tourism industry, travel, can greatly help sustainable tourism. This coupled with the empowerment of women in holds great hope for the future of Sakha. You can read more about Sakha on their website or follow up with our blog in the coming days.