It’s training day at the Haryana Police Academy in Madhuban, where 14 women constables stand to attention alongside their shiny Honda Duets, white helmets clamped to their heads.
The women, the daughters of teachers, labourers and farmers, know this: They will not be promoted to the next rank unless they learn to drive two-wheelers.
“It’s a bit scary when you start driving,” said Sarita, who joined the Haryana police as a constable in November 2016. “But then you get a hang of it, and your life becomes so much easier.”
Like many of the women here, Sarita uses only one name.
Why do these women need to learn to ride two-wheelers?
“In our line of work, mobility is very important as you have to be able to respond quickly when there is a crime,” said Mamta Singh, inspector general of police (crimes against women) and the highest-ranking woman police officer in Haryana.
In the past, women constables have either waited for a government vehicle to be made available to them or requested husbands to take them to the scene of a crime when duty calls, said head constable Pinky, the no-nonsense driving instructor here at the academy.
This is only the second batch she’s teaching.
“These women are constantly waiting for some man to take them to places and even drop them off to duty,” she said.
“I tell these girls, ‘what if your gharwala doesn’t have the time’? I want these girls to learn to drive so that they never have to depend on any man to take them anywhere.”
Haryana’s Women Have Progressed, but It Isn’t Enough
Haryana, the state from where Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched his flagship Beti Bachao, Beti Padhao campaign for having the country’s worst sex ratio, has a mahila thana (all-women police station) in all its 21 districts.
Women account for more than 9 percent of the total police force in the state, said Mamta Singh, above the national average of 7.28 percent, according to Bureau of Police Research and Development data.
On some gender indices, the state does well. For instance, maternal mortality, which is the number of deaths per 100,000 live births, for 2011-13 was 127, compared to the national average of 167, according to Niti Aayog.
More girls are in school than before, and one in three of Haryana’s girls has completed secondary school, above the national average of one in four.
Yet, despite educational gains, Haryana continues to have amongst the lowest female labour force participation rates in India.
Only 19 percent of Haryana’s women are in paid employment, compared to the already low national average of 31 percent, according to this World Bank June 2017 report. The latest Economic Survey pegs the all-India female workforce rate at just 24 percent.
It’s not just Haryana. Women are dropping off the labour map all over India. In just 10 years until 2011 (the year of the last Census), 19.6 million women had quit jobs.
The slide continues.
Women continue to drop out of paid employment for a variety of complex reasons, as our ongoing nation-wide investigation shows.
Female agency on some significant parameters has improved, according to the latest Economic Survey. For instance, across India, women are far more involved in decisions about their own health, are marrying later and having their first child later in 2015 than they were a decade ago. But in terms of economic engagement, women continue to drop out of paid work.
One of the reasons is the lack of reliable, safe and cheap public transportation, as this study, by the Institute of Transportation and Development and the NGO, Jagori, shows.
When they do seek jobs, women would rather opt for those that are closer home, even if these jobs pay less than those further away.
Why Learning to Drive Is Important to Women
In 2016, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) was involved in a skilling programme designed for women to get jobs in the textile industry.
After they had been trained, 60 women from various Haryana villages received job offers from factories in Panipat, said Kanta Singh, UNDP’s state project head for Haryana and the National Capital Region. But the women asked, ‘How will we get to work?’
So, the state government agreed to start a bus service. But even this was not good enough. The women found that half their salaries went into bus fare.
Moreover, the commute each way took over an hour. By the end of the first month, 59 of the 60 had quit, said Singh.
It was an important learning experience for UNDP, which runs various skilling programmes for women nationwide.
“If we want women to find jobs, then we have to make sure they are mobile,” said Clement Chauvet, chief of skills and business development, UNDP.
There are two key factors that determine a woman’s decision to seek a job — safety and mobility. “She asks: ‘How will I get to work?’ And ‘can I come and go safely,’” said Chauvet.
Thus, it isn’t enough to just teach women technical skills, said experts.
It is imperative also to equip them with other skills that will enable their economic participation. Learning to ride a two-wheeler, for instance.
In cities like Aurangabad in Maharashtra, the sight of women whizzing around town, long gloves covering their arms to prevent from getting tanned, is commonplace.
But in Haryana, there is a perception that driving is only for men, said inspector general Mamta Singh. Yet, “when a woman rides a scooter she is not only empowered but she also becomes a visible symbol of that empowerment”, she said.
Women’s increased physical mobility results “in economic mobility and improved access of economic opportunities thereby enhancing sources of livelihood”, said Ritu Dewan, economist and director, Centre for Development Research and Action, a think tank.
Driving Force: From Haryana to Five Other States
The guard at the gate of the Bhagat Phool Singh Mahila Vishwavidyalaya (BPS) at Khanpur Kalan in Sonepat district, 100 km north-west of Delhi, wanted to know my husband’s name to be entered into an official register that marks the entry and exit of visitors to this “only women, rural, multi-faculty residential university in the country providing education from KG to PhD”.
A brief argument ensued and the husband’s name was eventually left out. Inside, the campus includes a school of engineering and sciences, an institute of teacher training and research, and a polytechnic.
The university, including the Kanya Gurukul Senior Secondary School that it runs, has 7,000 students, all girls and women, mostly from neighbouring villages.
The university was established in 2006 and in September 2016, along with UNDP, set up a career counselling and guidance centre.
“Our students come from nearby villages,” said Suman Dalal, the nodal officer for UNDP at the university. “They want jobs but there aren’t a lot of opportunities near where they live.”
The girls themselves, but more often their parents, are simply not prepared to relocate so far just for jobs, said Dalal. Their chief concern: How are we going to commute so far from home?
“If we want to help women get jobs and placements, we have to teach them to drive at least a two-wheeler, which they can perhaps afford to buy at some stage,” said Kanta Singh.
And so, it was with this knowledge that the Disha project, a partnership between UNDP and India Development Foundation, supported by the IKEA Foundation, entered into a collaboration with Hero MotoCorp, the two-wheeler manufacturer, the Haryana government and the university.
Starting in June 2017, the university’s scooter-driving school has been such a success, said Vijay Sethi, who heads Hero’s CSR (corporate social responsibility) initiative, adding that the company has started similar initiatives in five other states including Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Hero is also a collaborator at the police academy at Madhuban.
Gradually, Men Have Stopped Staring
At BPS, some 260 women, students as well as university employees, have already learned to ride. Amongst the first to enroll was not a student but the woman sarpanch of nearby Kasanda village.
“I joined the first batch because I don’t want to have to depend on my husband to take me around to do my job,” said the sarpanch, Nisha Dayya Malik. “Everybody in my village saw that I was taking scooter classes and suddenly all the other girls said they wanted to learn too.”
Many learners at the two-wheeler riding training academy are university employees. Rachna, a clerk, said she used to walk to work, 30 minutes each way, from her home.
Now, she’s learned to drive, got herself a license and has bought her first two-wheeler – second-hand of course – from her savings. “There is so much work for me to do at home, so if I can save time commuting, it is a huge help to me,” she said.
Suman Dalal, a former state-level hockey player, remembers when she first started driving a car to work back in 2003, “men would stop their cars and stick their heads out of the window to see the strange sight of a woman driver,” she said.
And now? She shrugged her shoulders. “It’s not a big deal.”
This is the tenth part in an ongoing nation-wide IndiaSpend investigation into India’s declining female labour force participation.
Read other stories in this series:
(The story was originally published on IndiaSpend and has been republished with permission. the writer Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based journalist who frequently writes on gender issues confronting India.)
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