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How covid has made women more self-reliant in public spaces

There’s been a rise in women seeking help to learn to ride for better work options, more independence

Many marginalised women are learning to ride to go to work, do household chores or attend self-help group meetings.
Many marginalised women are learning to ride to go to work, do household chores or attend self-help group meetings. (iStock)

In the past nine months, Amrita Shary has become an inspiration for the women in her family. All because she learnt to ride a two-wheeler. For, with it has come a boost in confidence, growth in her tailoring business, and the opening up of possibilities. Earlier, Shary, 32, who lives in Telangana’s Narayanpet district,had to wait for her husband or infrequent public buses to take her to the market to shop for fabric or make deliveries. “Public transport is no longer safe because of covid-19. It was high time I learnt to drive,” she says.

Also Read: Why the manufacturing sector needs more women

Poor public transport, safety concerns and lack of financial autonomy to own vehicles are some of the barriers to women entering the workforce or growing their careers, apart from prevalence of patriarchal attitudes and lack of affordable and safe childcare. The shutdown of public transport in most cities during the pandemic had an adverse impact on working women, especially in the grey- and blue-collar sectors. Without public transport, many were stranded at home and could not go to work, do household chores or attend self-help group meetings.

Non-governmental organisations and support groups for women have observed a noticeable increase in women seeking help to learn to ride two-wheelers to increase their economic opportunities or just do household chores without being dependent. Women have also spotted an opportunity in being riders for the growing e-commerce delivery sector, which has also seen a rise as more consumers opted for app-based, home-delivery services during the pandemic.

Local governments have also made efforts to help women. Shary is among the 100 women, who participated in a two-wheeler rider training programme organised by the Narayanpet district collector earlier this year under its skill-building initiative for women. Three training programmes have been held since October 2020, and 87 participants own their own two-wheelers now.

“One of the biggest problems women in smaller towns and villages face is access to good, safe public transport. This area needs intervention, especially after the pandemic as people are scared of travelling in crowds,” says Narayanpet district collector Hari Chandana, adding she didn’t expect the interest to be so high. 

She had expected double-digit numbers for participation but has received 240 applications till now, with women farmers, homemakers and college students coming forward to learn to ride two-wheelers. It will also open opportunities for women to become micro-entrepreneurs, she believes. “There is definitely a lot of interest and women keep asking us to hold training programmes further afield from the district headquarters.”

Also Read: Can covid-19 change the work culture at home for men and women?

Home delivery boom

For Sweety Gondane, being a delivery partner has worked out better than holding an office job with fixed timings. Gondane started working as a delivery person after the first lockdown last year to support herself and clear her now former husband’s debt. She got a part-time job with Even Cargo, a women-only ecommerce logistics firm, which also helped her avail a loan to buy a two-wheeler. “The timings are flexible and women who have families can manage both work and home,” says Nagpur’s Gondane, 25. Her second job is with another logistics company, where she works from 2:30pm till 8pm.With the two jobs, Gondane is earning enough to live comfortably by herself and save.

Since Gondane is single, she is able to work for over 10 hours. For women with children or other household duties, logistics companies stack the deliveries in the first half of the day. Most women riders prefer delivering packages to food, which is demand based.

“If one works for a food delivery app, one has to wait outside the restaurant all day, there is no place to rest or take a break. Women are not comfortable idling or actively claiming public spaces. With package deliveries, they can plan their day,” says Pawani Khandelwal of Aatm Nirbhar, a Mathura-based organisation that teaches women to ride two-wheelers and train them to work with delivery jobs. The firm is present in six cities.

Food delivery startups are trying to attract more women riders. In June, Zomato co-founder Deepinder Goyal announced a rather ambitious plan of increasing the participation of women delivery partners by 10% from 0.5%, by the end of 2021. Zomato’s planned policy changes include self-defense training, distributing hygiene and safety kits, contactless late evening deliveries, a 24/7 helpline for emergencies and an SOS button on the app that can provide live location. Swiggy, too, said in October it was renewing its commitment to hire more women delivery partners.

Some of the NGOs that train women for delivery jobs are careful to place them with companies that have women-friendly workplace policies. For instance, Hyderabad’s Dhairya Foundation, which trains women from lower income groups to drive vehicles, is selective about which ecommerce firm it partners with. Prasanna Dommu, co-founder of the foundation, says she considers the age and size of the company and whether it has a centralised distribution area or a warehouse that women riders can return to for a break, and whether other women are employed. 

“Ultimately, our idea is to create some kind of economic impact through these training sessions,” says Dommu. The foundation has trained 50 women to become either self-reliant or as delivery partners since the pandemic last year, in Hyderabad, apart from teaching women farmers how to ride so they can visit their fields or attend self-help group meetings.

To raise awareness about the economic opportunities that riding a two-wheeler can open up, Jai Bharathi, founder of Moving Women (MoWo), a Hyderabad-based NGO that teaches marginalised women how to drive two- and three-wheelers, has undertaken a 40-day bike trip covering 11,101km across the country.

Her trip, which began on 11 October, will end in Hyderabad on 26 November. Besides meeting women across economic strata and throwing light on inspirational stories, Bharathi is also bringing together different organisations working to train women to drive autorickshaws, cars and two-wheelers to improve their income. 

“The idea was to collaborate with these organisations so that there is cross pollination of ideas in terms of best practices, strategies and what kind of value-add organisations can offer each other,” says Bharathi, adding that MoWo has seen a 30% increase in women wanting to learn to drive or ride since the pandemic.

Personal mobility

Okinawa Autotech, a Gurugram-based electric two-wheeler manufacturer, has observed a 35% increase in women customers across age groups since the pandemic began. Most of its sales is driven by tier-III cities. “We are seeing more women wanting to own vehicles as they can travel independently in a cost-efficient manner,” says co-founder Rupali Sharma.

It’s not just two-wheelers. There is a growing interest in four-wheelers as well. Women make up 30% of the customers at Spinny, a used-car platform. Last year, this number stood at 20%. Most are in the 28-35 age group, with half of the demand from Delhi-NCR, followed by Bengaluru , Hyderabad and Pune, says Niraj Singh, founder-CEO, Spinny.

Even for used car leasing and subscription, a concept that has seen traction since the start of the pandemic, women are the new customers. PumPumPum, a used car leasing subscription company, recorded a significant jump in women subscribers to 20%; there were no women subscribers before. 

“Since our inception (2018), we were trying to tap the promising women subscriber’s segment but the actual behavioural shift happened after the pandemic,” says Tarun Lawadia, founder and CEO, PumPumPum.

Among the few good things to come out of the pandemic is the Indian woman’s increasing desire to rise up more and have a stronger hold on her future.

Also Read: IT firms see rise in women leaders during the pandemic


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