In the aftermath of India's high profile gang rape case last December still dragging on this summer, the problem of sexual violence in India has been painfully brought to the fore. And, with a slew of horrific stories of attacks on India's women, children, aid workers, and tourists over the past year or so, it may not be surprising that the country has seen a sharp decline in tourism rates as more and more women feel unsafe traveling around India's cities.
But one New Delhi woman, Meenu Vadera, has offered a new, relatively unheard of solution to address both the immediate safety concerns and underlying social challenges women face. She founded New Delhi's first and only all-female Taxi service "Women on Wheels" (a Shaka Consulting Wings Company) in 2008, a women-run taxicab company that helps provide jobs for resource-poor women while simultaneously helping women feel safer when traveling around one of India's most dangerous cities, particularly at night.
The business is supported by local NGO investors to help keep the programs affordable, and has begun to gather momentum with increased international media coverage of Vadera's business as an innovative solution to India's sexual violence problem. In addition to driving, women are taught self defense by the Delhi Police, and are provided a special "Crimes against Women" cell phone to equip them with the means to deal with any untoward incident that they may face on the roads.
Vadera's Taxis have been highlighted in a range of international media outlets, ranging from Arab to Thai to British newspapers, as a creative business model that can be translatable across contexts as a way to keep women safe in transit that can, at the same time, promote women's entrepreneurship.
Female-driven taxi services are not, of course, an entirely novel concept. For example, London's 'Pink Ladies' Taxicabs are have become a niche female service catering to generally upper-class Londoners who prefer the cleanliness and safety of an all-female service. But Vadera's business model in New Delhi is particularly notable for its multi-faceted approach that aims to help empower resource-poor women to become financially independent as drivers, while simultaneously protecting women by providing a safe space for them passengers to feel more comfortable maneuvering around the city.
"We’re talking about empowerment," said Vadera in a recent interview with the Washington Post, adding, "For us, what is more important is to establish the role of women in public transport. We would like to have a large enough presence that breaks the perception forever," she explained about the difficulties women face in transport and in business, adding that she hopes to, "Open these doors for women," so that they can feel safe and empowered maneuvering the streets of India.
She said the Taxi system is an ideal way to help women to gain skills and financial gains that other industries can't offer because of the flexibility of the service. "You cannot have women working 15 hours a day, not because they don’t want to, but because that’s what men tell women as they are meant to have other responsibilities within the family," she said, "So we had to create a working environment to let them do this."
But the business is not without its challenges. In a series of interviews with global media company Tempo TV available below, women Taxicab drivers in Vadera's service mentioned facing challenges maneuvering the roads dominated by male counterparts. "The minute they see a female driver," one Women on Wheels driver lamented, "They immediately start honking and overtaking ... They'll stare at us as if we're aliens."
Of course the ideal is a city environment in which both women and men feel confident and safe as drivers and passengers in every available form of transit and in all city streets. But Vadera is confident that her business offers a two-fold solution to gender violence few other solutions can offer. "We would like the women drivers to at one stage become shareholders in the company," she explained. "We’re also expanding to different cities. We now have a presence in Gurgaon, we’ve started in Jaipur and are probably going to start in Kolkata, so four cities in total over the next three years."
International observers should pay close attention to Vadera's taxicab business as it continues to expand. The concept is one that may be relatively easy to replicate in a variety of contexts where women face similar challenges. The program's ability to provide services for women, by women, helps marry goals for women's economic progress and gender equality, which, the evidence suggests, are considered more and more inextricably linked.