The streets of New Delhi hum with a constant buzz of activity; auto rickshaws whiz between trucks and cars while food vendors yell out to potential customers. While there are few purchasable items that cannot be found in India’s capital city, one thing is noticeably absent: the presence of women.
One explanation is that there are simply less of them. The recent census showed that the current sex ratio is the worst in recorded Indian history with only 914 girls per 1,000 boys in children ages 0-6. The falling ratio is not a product of biology but rather of a culture where daughters are seen as an economic burdens, with dowry costs often exceeding yearly incomes. Historically, in India, it is the sons who inherit land, carry on the family name and provide for parents in their old age. Despite government attempts to criminalize sex-based abortions and offer cash to families that keep girls, Indian daughters continue to be culled from the population.
Another reason for the invisibility of women is safety. Delhi is notoriously unsafe for women with at least one woman physically molested each day and 42 reported rapes in 2011 alone. Particularly frightening is a recent surge of women being molested and even raped by their taxi drivers.
In 2008, my company, Start Up, partnered with long-time women’s rights advocate Meenu Vadera to fill the demand for a safe taxi service for middle-class women and expand livelihood options for lower-income women with the launch of Sakha, a cab service run by women for women. Start Up also worked with Ms. Vadera to develop a nonprofit arm of Sakha, the Azad Foundation, which focuses on providing young women from disadvantaged urban communities with the training and support they need to navigate the formidable Delhi streets.
Sakha is more than just a cab company. As Ms. Vadera explains, “Driving is just an excuse, what we’re really to do is break an image and provoke a change in mindsets towards women.”
Although Ms. Vadera maintains that Sakha and Azad are still in the “chrysalis” stage, the organizations have undoubtedly changed many minds, both in the marginalized communities where they source their employees and among their customers.
Sakha’s COO, Nayantara Janardhan explains, “When the women come into the program they are so clearly downtrodden. The training strengthens them, gives them confidence and then they start earning and gain economic power—from an average monthly family income of Rs 3,500 to an individual salary of Rs 5,000-7,000 per month. They become the principal breadwinners in their families!”
Their clientele too is changing. Whereas once Ms. Janardhan found herself forced to persuade customers that women are capable of driving, now she has a waiting list for customers wanting to hire Sakha chauffeurs. In the future, Sakha hopes to expand to corporate tie-ups in order to ensure a steadier sense of employment for their newly licensed radio cab fleet. To hire a cab or engage with Sakha, email Ms. Janardhan at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Start Up is currently looking for other early-stage initiatives to incubate. For more information, contact Sahil Vasudeva at email@example.com.
While India still has a long ways to go before women are widely recognized as valuable members of society, innovative social enterprises like Sakha give hope amidst bleak statistics.