The India-made auto-rickshaw has been playing a major role in providing cheap transport to the masses of Sri Lanka and giving the working class Lankan male an avenue of economic mobility. But in war-affected Jaffna, the ‘three-wheeler’ has taken on an entirely new role - giving destitute war-affected Tamil women a source of earning and a means to liberate themselves from entrenched socio-cultural taboos about the kind of work women can do.
March 8, 2012, International Women’s Day, saw a radical change in Jaffna’s social landscape. Ten women, dressed in khaki overcoats were driving autorickshaws for hire. The conservative Jaffna man was aghast, for this was against entrenched expectations about women and work. Men ogled or made snide remarks. The women gave disapproving glances.
“In the beginning I was scared of social censure. But very soon, I found that the common Jaffna man was actually very caring. For example, auto mechanics are offering their services on deferred payment basis. I am very happy now,” said driver Komala, a 42-year-old mother of four children whose husband had ceased to work long ago, having taken to drink.
Komala told Express that she was struggling to find a job when the Women’s Development Department of the Jaffna Pradeshiya Sabha announced a grant-cum-loan scheme under which select women from vulnerable sections would get autorickshaws if they would only take to driving themselves. It was a project of the Women’s Education and Research Centre (WERC) and the Indian High Commission.
“I found that traditional schemes for destitute women like tailoring and poultry farming did not generate much income. It then occurred to me that autorickshaw driving would not only generate an adequate income but also liberate women socially and culturally. Fortunately, it generated great expectations from the women,” said Dr Selvy Thiruchandran, head of WERC, and author of the novel scheme.
Udayani Navaratnam, Women’s Development Of ficer at the Jaffna Pradeshiya Sabha, said that among the 10 women chosen, there had been no drop out, though the earnings were low - only about `700 per day. “I find it difficult to pay the monthly loan instalment of LKR 10,500 and also keep the home fires burning. I have six mouths to feed,” Komala said.
But WERC has found a way out. “With the new school session starting in January 2013, the women may be able to find regular hires. We are talking to the school principals about facilitating this,” Thiruchandran said. The women themselves are jointly working on a plan to overcome this difficulty. “We are negotiating with some banks for a group loan. With this, we will pay the present creditor in full, and keep giving the bank just LKR 2,500 per month,” Komala said.