At a time when much of the focus in India is on how powerless women are and how to protect them from the rough male population, a lovely little initiative called Red Rickshaw Revolution aims to highlight just how empowered women in India are and can be.
“What’s the relation between rickshaws – a typically male-driven public vehicle – and women empowerment?” I hear the sceptical cynic ask with an aesthetically raised eyebrow. “What on earth,” (s)he plods on unrelentingly before I’ve even had the time to answer, “can link that three-wheeler that is associated with aggressive driving, bullish haggling and a very testosterone-fuelled roughness to the soft and dainty gender that is woman?”
Red Rickshaw Revolution sets about very unassumingly trying to kill precisely this ‘damsel’ stereotype so instilled in the average male mind.
Three dynamic women, flanked by a small team of equally strong-willed ladies, are driving an auto-rickshaw from Delhi to Mumbai, crossing 5 states within 9 days, in a bid to not only raise funds for 3 women empowering NGOs, but to also introduce the world to some remarkable everyday women that live across India and embody the concept of ‘woman empowerment’. Director of Vodafone India Foundation, who is running this campaign, and one of the three auto drivers, Laura Turkington, hails from Ireland but has been in the subcontinent for the last two years now. She has done a few campaigns already but wanted to do one that would celebrate the everyday women across India, since she feels Indian women are among the strongest in the world, given all that they face.
Speaking exclusively to Zeenews.com in between her stints as the auto-rickshaw driver she went into what she wants to achieve from this 9-day journey. “Our objectives are two-fold: we want to raise awareness about issues surrounding women in India by celebrating women in the country. And we want to focus on ordinary women who achieve extraordinary things rather than exceptional women. We want to show that even everyday women here are empowered, focusing on the positivity.” “And secondly, we want to raise some crucial funding for the three NGOs we are supporting. And while we are halfway through our trip already, I believe we aren’t yet halfway there in terms of raising money. We are spreading awareness alright, but we want to raise a lot for these NGOs who are doing some great work.”
The NGOs she mentions, in her mildly Irish accent, includes ‘Breakthrough’, which focuses on ‘women’s rights through interventions in domestic violence, early marriage and sex selective elimination’. There’s also ‘CORP’, which works in the slums in Mumbai and aims ‘to provide comprehensive vocational training to 300 women for the first time in the slum area of Thane, Mumbai’. The third NGO, AAWC, works in the red light area between Mumbai and Kamathipura, the oldest red-light area, to ‘provide women and children, who are abandoned, destitute and exploited with the tools and resources they need to have a better quality of life.’
But there are other ways of raising funds, and I put that to Laura who admits that, at first, she was planning to run a marathon for the cause. “But I wanted to do something different,” she adds with her infectious exuberance that doesn’t betray the fatigue of an entire afternoon’s auto driving, “Something quirky! And then this auto-rickshaw idea came about. It’s very Indian and something unwomanly. Yet, we had a woman auto-driver we knew, and she has really helped make this happen.” The woman she refers to is Sunita Chaudhary, second of the all-women rickshaw-driving crew. Sunita is a strong and confident woman who holds the distinction of being Delhi’s first female auto-driver. She’s helped the other two rickshaw novices get to grips with the three-wheeler’s unique steering and maneuvering. Irish Carina Deegan is the other woman in the dynamic trio. She describes herself as ‘Foundation Support and Wonder Woman’ in her title on the Red Rickshaw website.
The uniqueness about this project is how the focus remains on the empowerment of women without making them sound even remotely frail or incapable. Take, for instance, Thursday morning’s inspirational woman featured on the campaign’s website – Shanti Devi. The site’s homepage tells us her story: “Her tribal community in northern Rajasthan branded Shanti Devi a ‘witch’ nearly a decade ago. Blinded by age-old superstitions, the local villagers believed it was Shanti’s ‘fault’ that her family suffered from prolonged fever and breathing problems. Convinced that Shanti was a bad omen for the community, they forcibly tried to make her drink goat’s blood, as recommended by the local witch doctor. They believed that this would lift the curse. However, Shanti Devi protested against this ill-fated tradition and decided to fight for her innocence. With support from another villager, Shanti Devi challenged her prosecutors in a local women’s forum and received an apology for her harassment! Ever since, Shanti Devi has dedicated her life to fight against the social evil and to help provide a safe future for fellow women. With a firm belief that lack of basic medical facilities and illiteracy encourages these superstitions to prevail, Shanti Devi works tirelessly to make women in her community aware about health, medical and sanitary issues.(…)”
I ask Laura if it was a conscious decision to portray women with such power rather than stressing on their suppression. She confirmed that it was: “There’s too much noise about women under repression and all that. While that’s important in its own place, we wanted to celebrate the positivity of everyday women who are empowered. It struck me to find these unsung heroes go unnoticed. So we decided to focus on them. It will inspire others to realize that you have it within yourselves to deliver the change you need and demand around you.” There are many such women spread around India who serve as a more relatable inspiration to those around them and, very unassumingly, empower our society and our women more than all the numerous ‘calls for justice’ put together do. These are women who we’ve never ever heard of and may actually never hear of. They aren’t Kiran Bedis or Indira Gandhis, nor are they superwomen or batgirls, out there saving the planet. They are everyday women who stand beside us in the bus, walk with us as we exit the Metro station, sit at the desk beside us working diligently on the computer. They are everyday women who change the fuse when it blows, install software updates on their computers when they’re available, manage the family’s finances through the year. They are everyday women who take the streets to protest, fight belligerently against injustice and, sometimes, even drive a red rickshaw across 5 states to support a cause they strongly believe in.