NEW DELHI: The rhythmic beat of drums brought a bustling market square in an upscale neighbourhood of Delhi to a complete standstill. Braving the chilling rain, a group of young women and men marched in with a huge banner urging people to Aao uthe hum nyay ke liye, samman ke liye, swabhimaan ke liye (Let’s rise for justice, for honour, for self-respect) and vociferously raising slogans in support of a woman’s right to a violence-free existence. Having grabbed everyone’s attention, they swiftly formed neat lines and broke out into an energetic dance routine set to the resounding melody of ‘Jaago Dilli Jago’ (Awaken Delhi), one of the anti-violence songs of the One Billion Rising (OBR) campaign against gender violence.

Chandni, Saroj, Khushi, Jyoti, Seema stood amidst this spirited flash mob, adding their voices to the OBR movement, initiated by American playwright-activist Eve Ensler and supported by various civil society organisations such as Sangat, Jagori and Action Aid, among others in India. Who are these women? They are the confident, articulate drivers of Sakha Cab Services, a Delhi-based ‘by women-for women’ venture that is not only economically empowering girls from disadvantaged backgrounds but also enabling regular city women to travel hassle-free – day or night.

The service is run by Sakha Consulting Wings Private Limited while the training is provided by Azad Foundation, a non-government organisation. Says Nayantara Janardhan, Chief Operating Officer, Sakha Consulting, “More than 95 per cent of the women who come to us are either survivors of violence or have witnessed it at close quarters. They now realise they’re not alone in their struggles. Joining the OBR campaign has opened their eyes even more to the fact that crimes against women are a global reality. The movement has given them an opportunity to share their life stories and motivate other affected women to break free. To reach out to the general public on the issue, we recently organised a car rally in Delhi, led by our women drivers, and at every stopover they also performed to ‘Jago Dilli Jago’.”

Jyoti, 39, is passionate about driving home messages of safety and justice for women. No one understands fear, helplessness and anger better than she does. For 19 years of her marriage she tried to stand up to her husband’s unrelenting abuse even as their two children silently looked on. She recalls, “My husband would drink and beat me up. I had no idea that this was domestic violence and that I could put a stop to it. As a child I had seen my father hitting my mother. She tolerated it quietly. So I dealt with it similarly. Girls in our society are always taught to bear everything patiently but I now know we have to change that thinking.”

It’s only been a few years since Jyoti has learnt to verbalise her feelings. She first stepped out of home to work at a fitness centre nearby when her husband refused to give her money to run the home or pay the school fees. She slaved away from 3.30 am to midnight every day to keep things going but only got more abuse in return - he also started taking away her salary. “It was really frustrating so I gave that up eventually. I tried my hand at candle-making and worked for a tiffin service but he would not let me do anything for long. I became depressed and then sought solace in spirituality,” she narrates. It was then that she met Khushi by chance. “After she working as a driver she introduced me to Azad Foundation. The training transformed me from a vulnerable woman to a strong, independent professional. I was on the brink of a nervous breakdown and the counselling and legal advice provided there proved to be a life-saver. It’s been over two years since I have filed for a divorce,” she adds.

Looking at Khushi, 23, one would never imagine her to be the activist-cum-skilled cabbie that she is today. A typical girl-next-door, she came to Delhi from Jhansi when she was 18. As the family’s financial condition was poor, she gave up studies and was working as a domestic help when she befriended Jyoti, who egged her on to look for a better job. She zeroed in on learning driving at Azad Foundation after her aunt’s friend told her about it. “Driving seemed like such an exciting thing to do and when my parents didn’t object I signed up. It has been the best decision of my life,” says the vivacious youngster.

Khushi is happy her work is not just breaking stereotypes but facilitating the mobility of other women, “Earning a living is not the only reason why I step out of home; this is my way of contributing towards a safer environment for women in Delhi, so that they can roam as freely as the men.”

For Sakha drivers, talking about violence and oppression comes naturally. Says Chandni, 23, who currently lives in the slum of Govindpuri in south Delhi, but spent the early part of her life in her native village in Uttar Pradesh, “In my village, patriarchy has such a strong hold that few consider women equal to men. If the men take a decision everyone has to follow it. Any questions from women lead to violence - be it mental, physical or sexual. I have observed this since childhood and perhaps this is why I have tried to rebel in my own way. Instead of stitching I chose a career in driving. Learning about the different components of a car and how to change tyres was fun. My parents supported me but I know not everyone is as fortunate. Many of my colleagues have to explain themselves at home.”

Saroj, 23, is one of them. She remarks, “I wonder why men can’t support the women in their lives. My father is still furious with me and feels that by helping out in running the household I am undermining his position. How long will it be before our contributions in the home and society are acknowledged?”

Pointing to the purple flag on her car that calls women to rise for justice, Saroj’s colleague, Shanti, says, “For a woman, true justice is when she is treated as an equal at home.” This mother of three has had her share of heartbreak and strife. “I was 17 when I got married and thought that it was the right thing for me. But I ended up facing domestic violence for over a decade. Now I tell girls that even if they are in a relationship to finish their education and take a few years to get to know their partners before they commit to marriage,” says the woman, who is now a single mother to her daughters.

Each one of these women feels a kind of obligation to pass on their experiences and the OBR campaign has been the perfect platform. Elaborates Savita, 23, who has been with Sakha since 2010, “Talking about violence is the first step towards ending it. When we do public events we give the issue visibility. I know that not even 10 per cent of those who watch us would be inspired to treat their women better, but we will persist.” Jyoti, who distributes OBR’s signature red ribbons and badges among her daughter’s friends, believes, “reaching out to the children may just be the key to overhauling a prejudiced social system”.

Ultimately, if it is convenient for men to resist change – “who will they hit to feel powerful if they decide to boycott violence” – then these women have also decided that they will not give up the fight. “Only awareness and sisterhood can give us the power to stand up to violence,” signs off Chandni.

( Women's Feature Service)