Breaking gender barriers

It was by chance that Mallika Iyer took this auto rickshaw driven by a lady driver Sheila Gaekwad. Her story touched her so much that the writer was compelled to pen down her experience on that ride

Aai, don’t wait with your rickshaw outside my school…I don’t like it,’ my son tells me. He doesn’t want his friends to know that his mother is a rickshaw driver. He feels embarrassed,’ says Sheila Gaekwad with a tone of sadness in her voice.

Sheila is one amongst the handful of lady rickshaw drivers spotted on the Mumbai streets. When her husband was diagnosed with a heart problem in 2010, Sheila took the dramatic decision to drive to support the family. “I needed to look for more productive avenues to earn and support the family,” she explains matter-of-factly.

That event changed the direction of Sheila’s life. Yet, I am curious about why she chose to take up something unconventional like driving a rickshaw, a job not traditionally done by women.

It was a mix of chance and grit. Sheila previously worked in a creative handicrafts workshop where her job involved stitching dolls and clothes. But a unique project for women employees there, gave her the skills she needed to shift gears. “I was lucky that I had undergone training for driving a rickshaw there,” says Sheila. “But I did not once think I would actually put that skill to practical use until my husband’s heart condition compelled me to look for solutions.”

But learning to drive and having a licence is one thing, getting a permit and driving a rickshaw for a living quite another. “There were about 15 women who were trained to drive a rickshaw under the project. But none of the others drive a rickshaw. Even I may not have turned to it, had other compulsions not forced me to think in that direction,” says Sheila.

When she first shared the idea with her husband, he didn’t take it seriously. “My husband told me I won’t be able to do it,” she reminisces. But around that time, she heard that the RTO intended to issue a batch of rickshaw permits to women. That encouraged her.

She obtained a bank loan and made an application for a permit. Sheila was issued a Ladies Permit to ride a rickshaw. And the day to begin her new life as a rickshaw driver neared. “I was scared,” she says remembering that first day. “I was nervous…not sure I would be able to manage. I started by ferrying my children to school and back, to gain confidence. But I had a good first day. And that helped me carry on,” she explains as she looks back at her journey.

I ask her how customers react when they see a lady behind the driver’s handle. She laughs. “Women customers make it a point to remark that they are happy to see a lady driving a rickshaw. They always have a word of encouragement to offer. Most men don’t react.”

Candid in her demeanour and wise in her outlook, Sheila notes that most people are supportive. “Aside from the initial fears and doubts, everyone in my family encouraged me,” she says. From the traffic policeman to fellow rickshaw drivers, she receives only words of encouragement. “But there are those rare samples,” she smiles, “who say nasty things. I just ignore them and their remarks.”
Sheila’s rickshaw has been allotted under a lady’s permit which means, she can rent it out only to another lady driver. “But I don’t know any other lady who drives a rickshaw,” she says with a shrug of her shoulders.

There are good days on the road and bad. There is the constant worry about repaying the loan. There are prejudices and biases. But Sheila takes them all in her stride and speaks only about the opinion that matters most to her: Of her children.

While Sheila’s son is uneasy that his mother is a rickshaw driver, her daughter is more accepting of it. “My son tells me to wait about 100 meters away from his school when I go to fetch him. He doesn’t want his friends to see his mother driving a rickshaw. But my daughter invites all her friends to take a ride home from school in her mother’s rickshaw. They have diametrically opposing views,” she laughs.

And when she can turn her son’s view around, she says, will be her happiest day. “When my son feels proud of what his mother does, understands that I have broken the gender barriers for his sake and do this for his happiness and for the family, I will be very proud and immensely happy.”

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