Lucknow is a city I associate with school vacations, with renting a bicycle to explore other neighbourhoods. I’m back here to meet the first group of women auto-drivers in the capital of Uttar Pradesh – a state where the patriarchal social order runs especially deep. These women have each escaped years of domestic abuse: some were married into oppressive households, often were victims of domestic violence and sexual abuse. But oppression breeds the power to oppose it, and these women pulled through to create new lives.
“It was a tough battle considering the number of problems that eclipsed the situation,” says Neetu (who does not use a surname), a senior programme coordinator with HUMSAFAR, a support centre for women in crisis. Having been involved from the start, she mentions that the first challenge was helping them out of their fragile state and overcome the fear of estranging family and society.
The scope of the problem seems to overwhelm their efforts to make the women feel secure. Each morning when they gather, they share a sense of strength and triumph, but there are moments of utter despair – especially when their own families questions their decision to become drivers.
“We were working with more than 150 women when we started out,” Neetu said. “All the women underwent training and now can drive e-rickshaws and auto rickshaws. Most of them left in the middle because of issues at home. As of now, the rest have been assigned routes around women colleges and schools where the passengers are also mostly women.” That builds a sense of security for both travellers and the drivers.
For most families, the biggest worry is the shame of their daughters being seen working as drivers. “Most cases of domestic abuse in marriages are dissolved in compromise, or else the accused is made to serve time at a rehabilitation centre,” Neetu says. “Very rarely do women gather the courage to break out of it and start a new life.” But those who show true grit are taking small steps to realise new dreams.
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Pallavi Gaur is a freelance photographer currently working on a project set in Aligarh.Visit www.humsafarindia.org to support their efforts to help women escape domestic violence.