A female driving force

3 Jan

The glass ceiling has been poked at and poked through in various places of the world. Now the war devastated North and East of Sri Lanka have joined in too. Women-headed families left fending for themselves after their menfolk have been killed or gone missing in action, are redefining the patriarchal norms that have held sway in their area. 

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A lady driver of a three wheeler taxi

It is a peninsula left devastated by three decades of civil war. But looking at Jaffna now, one would be hard put to find evidence of it. ‘Development’ is in full swing everywhere; supermarkets, smoothly tarred and widened roads, multi-storeyed, modern buildings, and pretty houses.

A land and people who have thought of nothing but war and survival for over 30 years are moving on. Due to their circumstances, they have unique problems – which they are also learning to fend in unique ways. One of the best examples is the overabundance of war-affected widows and women-headed families. It is a peninsula that traditionally believed that a woman’s place was in the home. But now, of necessity, they have had to move out. Several non-governmental organizations (NGOs) tried to help them cope in various ways; poultry, farming implements and wells, sewing machines…

The Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC) however identified another need and came up with something different: ladies driving three wheeler taxis. This is a country that already has female pilots. We also have plenty of women driving cars. In Jaffna, it is no uncommon sight to see girls on scooters, or even on motorcycles. Yet, nowhere in the country did we previously have women taxi drivers. A few women have been known to drive their own private three wheelers, but driving that hardy little vehicle is generally considered the unique preserve of men.

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A passer-by in Jaffna glances at the relatively new scene of lady drivers at their stand

Thanks to the initiative of WERC, however, Jaffna, Batticaloa and Ampara now sport some scenes that the locals are still getting used to; seeing females driving three wheeler taxis. The initiative is nearly a year old in Jaffna and from there, it was taken to Ampara and Batticaloa three months ago, according to Director of WERC, Dr. Selvy Thiruchandran.

“We wanted to give the women some non-traditional skills, which would also be less laborious than their traditional skills set of farming or sewing,” explains Dr. Thiruchandran on why they chose this particular project for their target beneficiaries. “We chose women who were supporting their families, mainly single mothers and gave them intense training on assertiveness, personality development and gender equity before equipping them with the vehicles. We also taught them basic accounting and banking skills as well as how to cope with public and sexual harassment. As it turned out, however, they have been far better received by their communities and their fellow male taxi drivers than we anticipated.”

The women concur. According to Komaleswari Selvakumar (42), a mother of four, the male three wheeler drivers of the area are extremely helpful and protective. “They on their own, gave us their mobile numbers and told us to call them if we ever run into any trouble with customers but we have not had any such trouble so far,” she smiles. She has her stand in a busy spot in the heart of Jaffna town and according to her, other drivers immediately come up and offer to take the hire if a shady looking character walks up to her. “Just yesterday though, after I had accepted a hire, a fellow driver called me and told me the customer looked a little troublesome, so he would take him instead. I told him that he should have acted promptly (as they usually do) in diverting the hire to himself as the customer was already in my taxi and it would be insulting to him to transfer him after that. I took the hire – the man was indeed shifty-eyed and nervous, which in turn made me nervous. But when I got talking to him, I was amused to find he was actually afraid of me. He was a big, burly man, which is what must have set the alarm bells ringing in my colleague’s mind, but as it turned out, he was far more conscious of the fact that he was alone in my three wheeler than I was.”

Komaleswari at the wheel

Komaleswari at the wheel

According to her, the reception from the community has been positive but she does hear some snide remarks as well from ‘traditionalists’, not all of whom are men. Her husband, a labourer, unable to support his family had taken to drinking to drown his disheartenment, and so it has fallen to Komaleswari to not only bring up her children but earn their bread as well.

“I do this out of necessity, not out of any wish to do so. But I hear a wide spectrum of comments, ranging from encouraging ones for supporting my family as well as staying on with my husband, to advice to divorce him and marry another man, to sneers on how dare I wear the pants in the marriage. I just shrug it off and do what I have to do. What else can I do?”

It is a daunting challenge that these women have taken up, not only because they juggle housework and childcare with their jobs but because of the nature of that job, which their culture and backgrounds had never prepared them for.

“I only knew how to go to the hospital and the local temple from my home. As girls we were not allowed to go anywhere else, especially unescorted. We lived such sheltered lives,” says Sujanthini Indrakumar (33) a mother of three. “I still have to ask my way around. Finding the places people wanted to go to was one of the biggest challenges. Along with learning to drive. We were not given adequate training and were launched before we were comfortable with the vehicle. I used to practise test runs outside my house for days.”

She has built up her own client base, mostly female office workers who are happy at the prospect of having a lady driver. “I have regular customers, mostly children and ladies. It is so much easier to be self-employed like this as I can regulate my times. I used to work in a supermarket before this and had to work till 8.00 or 9.00 p.m., coming home too exhausted to do anything else. My husband is an ex-cadre who surrendered after the war but has gone missing since then. I looked for him in all the rehabilitation camps but eventually gave up, figuring if he was alive, he knew his way home. I have to single-handedly look after my children and can’t afford to take time away to look for him, so I had to give up.”

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The first batch of lady drivers from Jaffna

In addition to not knowing the topography well like the men do, the women launched into a completely new field, didn’t know the rates to charge which had apparently caused some problems. It has since been solved by another innovation, new to the area: they are among the first meter taxi drivers there.

The rate, at Rs 70 for the first kilometre and 40 for every kilometre after is a lot heftier than Colombo rates, but is apparently the stipulated rate for outstation taxis.

“We fixed them up with the metres as they had no idea of what rates to ask for,” says Rajani Chandrasekaram, a Jaffna-based women’s rights activist, who was asked by WERC to supervise the project. According to her, the project is a success in that they hadn’t encountered the level of opposition they had feared at first. “We gave them a lot of training on how to deal with harassment and are still planning on self-defence classes too, but none of that has been necessary so far. Of course only four are currently driving their vehicles in Jaffna and all four are rather strong personalities.”

In the Jaffna project, 25 women had been selected to be beneficiaries, of which only 15 had stayed the course and 10 had finally passed the license to receive the vehicles. But only four are now actively running. The others gave various excuses as to why they are not running.

“One said KKS road is being repaired and she is scared of the heavy traffic running up and down the available half of the road, when I called to ask for an explanation,” says Rajani. “Mostly they seem to be giving in to community pressures and perceptions. They are getting remarried or preparing to remarry and so are getting culturally repressed from showing the image of a ‘strong woman’ which might be detrimental to their marital aspirations.”

The ones who are running meanwhile, project the ‘strong woman’ image for all its worth. “I have developed this personality where I talk to my customers in an easy manner,” says Komaleswari. “Men, especially adolescents and youths might make the mistake of thinking we are weak or meek otherwise. Lady drivers are still a novelty and so they gravitate towards us and if they find us friendly, try to flirt. I respond with witty repartee but make it clear in as genial a manner as possible that I am a strong woman not to be messed with.”

Picture credit: Dushiyanthini Kanagasabapathipillai

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2 Responses to “A female driving force”

  1. Chavie January 6, 2013 at 1:49 pm #

    What a wonderful initiative. 🙂 Hope they’re able to recruit more drivers and the ladies who have left will return to the business. If they’re numerous enough, they’ll be at the centre of Jaffna’s story of post-conflict revival, and change perceptions about working women in that community.

  2. Shiranee January 7, 2013 at 1:27 am #

    This is a great idea….way to go Lanka. !! Women should equally have their rights,freedom of speech & freedom to do what is their hearts desire. Let this not be another little India.Women should not be considered as an object that belongs in the kitchen,it should have never been, and will never BE !!

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