The Feminine Touch on the Male-dominant Wheels

These days the streets of Colombo and its suburbs are caught by an aura of femininity, with females parking their Tuk – Tuks in the parking stands which had seen long years of male presence; and the wheels of several Taxis turned by female hands.

Tuk-Tuk as it is referred to by foreigners, or the Three-Wheeler as termed locally, is a very popular and convenient vehicle with three wheels. This vehicle is widely used mostly in India and Sri Lanka for transportation, and had always been driven by men for many decades.  Yet, during the recent past years, Sri Lankan women have stepped out of their traditional occupations, and have opted to drive the Tuk – Tuk as a means of earning.

Fifty-five year old Sumana [not her real name] says she does not want to depend on anyone for her livelihoods. Sumana had been the owner of a Tuk – Tuk for many years. But the societal taboos had prevented her from taking travel hires.  Hence she had used the vehicle to fulfil her family’s transport requirements. Today Sumana is a busy driver with many regular customers. “I am not educated; the women Tuk – Tuk drivers are not educated. But we are smart enough to involve in a profession that has been occupied by men for long. The male drivers do not compete with us; they are supportive”, mentions Sumana. She further adds with a proud smile, “most of our customers are women and children; because they feel safer to travel, when a woman is behind the wheel”.

Before in Sri Lanka, it was the women from the exclusive society who broke the social taboos posed on women; yet the recent times is seeing women from all levels of society, daring to take the challenge, ignoring the traditional limits set on women.

Proud to have produced the world’s first female Prime Minister, Sri Lanka is a country that has given equal opportunities to women when compared to its neighbours. Women of Sri Lanka are represented in diverse spheres, and hold leadership positions in various fields of profession. The literacy level of women in Sri Lanka is found high (52%), which amounts to more than the rate of men, and the highest among women in South Asia.

While the educated hold diverse levels of positions in the public, private and academic arenas, the women who have not been well educated, engage in small enterprises, household businesses, home gardening, poultry farming, textile, tailoring, etc. The women with no support to have their own means of economic ventures leave the country in search of greener pastures, which mostly result in worse hardships, and deaths. Realizing the need to step forward, women today are taking up challenges in life, and finding new support systems within the country, that will enhance both their social and economic statuses.

As an initiative to increase female participation in businesses, a number of companies have begun to recruit women, in the fields that previously disregarded women. Taxi companies that had always hired men till last year, have broken the restrictions and lately employed women – both educated and uneducated to register as drivers. Two prominent Taxi service companies (one being an international), began trainings for women drivers to advance their leadership skills, and enhance their capacities. Seeing women Tuk – Tuk and Taxi drivers is something unusual for Sri Lanka. Yet, today there are nearly 25 – 30 women driving Tuk – Tuks, and 10 – 15 driving Taxis (cars) in the capital city and its suburbs.We are given training on etiquette and on security before we begin work with the company. The company also conducts awareness programs on issues that might arise on the roads, when we are with customers. At first I was worried; later I got to know that the company takes down details of every passenger, in order to ensure security to both, the passenger and the driver. I drive my own Tuk – Tuk to take hires through this company”, says 44 year old Manoji [not her real name] from the outskirts of Colombo.

Extending of opportunities for women to step behind the wheel for public hires has increased their levels of economy. Deepani (not her real name) is a young mother of three who had struggled for long with an irresponsible husband, who drove a Tuk for hires. When Deepani heard about the Taxi Company, she took her husband’s              Tuk – Tuk and registered herself with the company. Soon she earned enough to exchange her three – wheeler for a small four – wheeler. “I have to pay a monthly lease for my new car, but I know I can do it. I feel economically secure than before. I can also control my husband’s behaviour now.

Thirty – eight year old Vindya (not her real name) who has a degree in Business Administration, resigned from her job as being Assistant – Manager in a renowned company to be with her children. As a single mother, she wanted to spend more time with her two young girls. “I came to know about this internationally owned Taxi Company, and thought it would be a great place of work for me. I love to drive. And here I am today, taking hires in my own car, meeting new people – locals and foreigners, earning good money, and still having time for my girls.

The reproductive roles that women have on them, do not allow most women to engage in economic activities out of their homes. The patriarchal systems in the society prevent women from doing certain jobs. Yet, today Sri Lanka proudly witnesses the shifts in the paradigm. Having women behind wheels as Tuk – Tuk and Taxi drivers does not only benefit the female drivers alone. The women and children who feared to travel in Tuk – Tuks and Taxis after a particular time of hour, or to certain places, feel safer with women drivers around in the city today. Women engaging with transport services increase the safety of the public – especially of women and children, and this initiative supports women drivers as well as the passenger.

Women’s participation in every field of work is not only important, but is also influential on the society. Women’s contribution in different industries not only links to women’s economic empowerment, but is also a crucial element for a country’s economy. When women are economically empowered, it reflects on their families as a whole. Economically empowered women have a voice in a society. When women are economically empowered they receive the strength to overcome violence and discrimination.

…………. there is no tool for development more effective than the empowerment of women” – Kofi Annan.

Evelyn Ariyaratnam | Sri Lanka