BHUBANESWAR: Challenging stereotypes, she was gearing up to make historic strides in city’s workforce. A single woman, 29-year-old Meena Das dealt with dozens of adversities for over eight months last year to become one of the first few female cab drivers here. But, then the pandemic hit. The lockdown put brakes on her aspirations. Having incurred huge losses, neither the cab aggregators nor travel operators can offer immediate employment to a fleet of around 38 women drivers here. And, once again these women drivers fear moving back in time to an era of stereotypes and backwardness.
Moreover, their newly-acquired skills are at stake! They may lose the skills to lack of practice. These women, hailing from different slums, had undertaken the training to become drivers with the help of a livelihood project—‘ Women on Wheels—run by some voluntary organisations. The voluntary organisations had collaborated with cab aggregators, educational institutes and other offices to generate employment for these women. “None of the organisations are hiring currently. These women would have been placed in March. But, the announcement of lockdown put everything on hold. Now, we are struggling to find them jobs,” said Swati, the project co-ordinator of the programme.
As many as 11 women had received their driving licenses in March, added Swati. The sudden turn of events have butchered the sense of empowerment these women had acquired after fighting stigma and opposition. For 29-year-old Smrutirekha Behera of Patharbandha slum, it was extremely strenuous and difficult to convince her in-laws of her ability. “Not a single day went by when my in-laws didn’t taunt me for learning driving. Neighbours cracked jokes as I stepped out of my hut. They felt I would kill people on the roads. Now that I am jobless, they tell I am incompetent,” said Smrutirekha. These women had faced financial challenges too.
The meagre registration charge of Rs 500 was too hefty a price to pay for the likes of Meena, who earned a little more than a thousand by working as a playschool helper. “I walked 7 kms daily for eight months to reach the training centre. From there, covered another few kms to reach the playschool. How could I spend Rs 60 to Rs 70 every day for shuttling between my hut, training centre and my workplace,” she said. With the school shut now, Meena’s livelihood is shrouded in uncertainties. Now, the voluntary organisations are trying to launch a woman- only cab service in the city shortly. But, these women are knocking the doors of various offices and households already to keep their skills alive.