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The new face of taxi driving in New Delhi

As a female driver, Mamta , 26, is already in a minority on Delhi's busy roads. Yet she hopes in this city of close to 14 million people to become one of a tiny elite: a female taxi driver.

Delhi's taxi ranks are still exclusively male. But Mamta is one of 32 women taught to drive by the Azad Foundation, a local NGO which works with disadvantaged women. It takes a year to get a full commercial licence to drive a taxi so most of the women initially find work as private chauffeurs, either for families or companies.

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Mamta, her hair scraped back in a sensible bun, is determined to get her taxi licence. She’s lucky, she explains, because her mother-in-law looks after her youngest child while she is out getting extra practice. "I got a lot of support from her," she says. "Her outlook to life is quite different to that of other mother-in-laws who expect their bahus (daughter-in-laws) to stay at home."

In Delhi, people are no longer surprised when girls from affluent families drive their own cars. But it is still a shock for male drivers to see female chauffeurs.

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Ekta Yadav is also behind the wheel. Petite but determined, a red vermillion bindi dotting her forehead and red and white shell bangles – the sign of a married woman - on her arms, Ekta says there have been occasions when men deliberately honk to irritate her. "Especially earlier when I used to have the red L sign pasted on the car," she adds. As she recalls this at a traffic crossing, a man on a moped stops and indicates that she go first. Visibly amused, she laughs saying, "Some surprise us with their politeness."

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Ekta graduated in the first batch of drivers at Azad Foundation and now works, together with Mamta, who was in the second batch, for Radiant Limousine Services, a company that hires out private drivers.

The women never dreamed of finding themselves behind the wheel of a car. Working as domestic servants or in factories – unprotected work at low pay for long hours – had been the limit of their job prospects.

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Ekta comes from a conservative background. Married at 15, illiterate and with four young children, it took her a long time to persuade her husband to allow her to go on the course but now she says, "I feel empowered, as if I have my own identity other than a wife and mother."

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Meenu Vadera (centre in blue), executive director of Azad Foundation, came up with the idea for the driving school. She says it is incredible how much the course has built the women's confidence. Our mandate is to work with underprivileged girls to help them make the transition from 'I cannot' to 'I can', she says.

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Meenu Vadera, executive director of Azad Foundation, continues, "The transformation during the course is so significant. You can see it in their body language, in their speech, their ability to negotiate. I think it’s partly stepping into a very different world. Learning to drive is like learning to swim or ride a bicycle: once you have got over the initial hesitation it makes you feel powerful." Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Meenu Vadera, executive director of Azad Foundation, continues, "The transformation during the course is so significant. You can see it in their body language, in their speech, their ability to negotiate. I think it’s partly stepping into a very different world. Learning to drive is like learning to swim or ride a bicycle: once you have got over the initial hesitation it makes you feel powerful."

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

The course takes four months through the Azad foundation where as well as learning how to drive the girls have lessons in self-defence, English conversation and classes about their gender rights and legal rights.

"When the women arrive at Azad most of them have no real documents – no ID card, no certificates of education," says Meenu. "One of the women on our first course said to me, 'If I’d died on the road in an accident they wouldn't have known who I was'. With a driving licence they are becoming visible citizens of their country."

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

Meenu hopes to launch a taxi service run by women for women in time for the Commonwealth Games in Delhi this October. The idea is partly to give women travelling in the city a safer option. As she explains: "Women feel a much safer driven by women drivers."

"I think we have just seen the beginning of the transformation," Meenu says. "Once they have stayed in a job for two years I think we will see a whole different level of what they can achieve. They will be the principal earners in their households and they will be out working for up to ten hours a day. It will be very exciting to see."

Credits: Suzanne Lee / Panos London

In New Delhi a small NGO is changing the face of taxi driving by training, and empowering, women to become taxi drivers and chauffeurs. This photo essay follows Mamta and Ekta in their new jobs and the other women who are being trained by the Azad Foundation.

Story and captions by: Diya Chaudhri

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In New Delhi a small NGO is changing the face of taxi driving by training, and empowering, women

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06/01/2010

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