India's first all-female chauffeur service

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For good or for worse, travelling through India is an assault on the senses - especially after flying across the world for several hours. Being greeted at the airport by a friendly face can make all the difference; for female tourists, it can be even more reassuring to have a host of the same sex.

In New Delhi, tour operator G Adventures partner with a pioneering all-female chauffeur service to transfer their clients to and from the airport. Set up by feminist and social entrepreneur Meenu Vadera in 2008, Women On Wheels is both a business and social enterprise programme, empowering women and giving them an equal footing in the workplace in various Indian cities.

Last November, Vadera was presented with an Everywoman in Travel Award for her efforts - and it's easy to see why. Here, she talks about the inspiration behind Women On Wheels...

 

What spurred you to set up the programme?

"Women's participation in the workforce has been declining over the last two decades - particularly in India. I've been working with NGOs all my life and they've done a lot of good work on campaigning, but making real changes to the lives of people by actually enhancing their incomes has been tough because it means engaging with the markets."

What's Women On Wheels all about?

"We decided to start an initiative which was a resource for women, providing them with livelihoods and dignity. By and large, the resource for women is in traditional gender roles - cooking, embroidery, etc - but how many tailors can a village have?

"The livelihood we thought about was driving - partially because I love to drive and I know that driving can make you feel empowered. Driving also attacks at the heart of patriarchy like nothing else, because if you became a driver you have to become a creature of the road. You claim your public spaces. It's often lack of mobility that keeps women where they are."

How does the programme work?

"We operate a hybrid social enterprise. Azad Foundation (azadfoundation.com) is our 'not for profit' arm, working with communities to spread the word about different economic opportunities for women. Only one part of the training programme is driving - looking after the car, understanding the car and maintenance, roads, routes, maps. They also teach self-defence, English speaking, First Aid and many other skills.

"Once women have their licence, they apply to Sakha (the 'for profit' arm) for driving employment. It provides employment to women drivers and safe transport to women users. We place women chauffeurs on long term contracts, with a 24/7 car hire service and for short term chauffeur hire. Last year, we piloted women as tour facilitators and that's something we want to develop."

Have you encountered many challenges?

"When we started, there were no professional female chauffeurs in North India. There are a lot of jokes about women drivers. Even when I started, if I went to present the idea somewhere, I would have people say, 'Oh, so you're going to teach women to drive. Make sure you teach them how to park!'"

How has the project changed women's lives?

"Women have become so confident - taking decisions in their lives and becoming people whose opinion is sought by the community. There's a whole status beyond the money they earn. They have become somebody. We have had several celebrity clients as well - the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and David Cameron.

"Many women now earn more than their family's monthly income. There's one chauffeur who told me: 'I used to iron everyone's clothes to earn a living; today I only iron my uniform.' That's great to hear."

Catherine Devane