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Women Behind the Wheel: Stories from Steer to Change

One of Reaching Hand’s newest programs, Steer to Change, aims to empower marginalized women by teaching them driving, life skills, English, computers, self defense, and first aid. Following the three-month course, women are employed as drivers for corporates. Our inaugural batch of 14 women will soon complete their training. All of these women have overcome gender barriers, tremendous adversity, and serve as role models for women in their communities and across India. On a personal level, I feel incredibly inspired by all of the women. Over the past few weeks, I have been capturing their stories. In this blog, I recount the stories of Deepika*, Laxmi*, and Mary*.

*names changed for confidentiality purposes  

“Why do you want to get an education when you are going to be married?”

Deepika’s sister posed this question to her when she asked for a 2000-rupee loan in order to pay her school fees. Although her sister didn’t give her the money, she was unfazed and determined to succeed. Taking up a job at a stabilizer manufacturing plant, she tied wires hour after hour only making 50 paisa a piece, often making less than 100 rupees a day. While she was saving money, it wasn’t enough and she made the decision to become a nun, as she had grown up religious. By becoming a nun, she would also be able to pass her 10th and eventually she hoped- her Pre-University Course (PUC) (American equivalent of 11-12th grades). After being accepted into the convent, she studied daily, late into the night, in order to learn English. As she had attended Kannada medium school thus far, passing her 10th in English wouldn’t be an easy feat. But Deepika’s determination was innate, not learned, and she would try until she succeeded. On her third attempt, she passed.

Growing up in a poverty-stricken family with five siblings and facing her father’s alcoholism, Deepika had a difficult childhood of abuse and sporadic homelessness. She recalls taking shelter in small bus stops after long nights of selling flowers on the street. Even 40 rupees was too much for her family to support her education at times, but somehow someway she was going to continue her studies. After multiple years at the convent, Deepika had passed her 2nd PUC but unfortunately health problems related to her earlier abuse made becoming a nun an unsuitable profession and she returned home. Feeling self conscious and unworthy, at first Deepika was nervous to take up any job. Eventually, she began doing door-to-door sales as a bookseller. But this job, a form of bonded labor, was horrendous. As she wasn’t selling enough books, she became indebted to her boss. There seemed to be no escape. Surviving on scraps of leftover food from weddings, her boss shifted her from Bangalore to Hubbli to Managalore, as if to impose his might. Once again feeling determined, after many months, Deepika managed to escape. Back in Bangalore, she managed to take up work as a receptionist in multiple organizations. This led to her favorite accomplishment thus far- being able to pay off her mother’s home loan from her salary.

In 2010, during a friend’s naming ceremony, Deepika met a woman whom introduced her to her son with the intention of getting him married. Time and time again, Deepika resisted the marriage proposal as she wanted to continue working. But eventually, she met the lady’s son and decided they were a great fit. Years passed and Deepika and her husband had two children. She continued working as a receptionist and later as a domestic helper, while her husband worked as a security guard. But, something was missing. Deepika longed to drive and after seeing both a woman tempo driver and woman rickshaw driver in her neighborhood, she knew this dream was possible. Unsure of how to learn this skill but remaining resolute in her goal, she asked everyone she knew. As fate would have it, she stumbled across a flyer for Reaching Hand’s new Steer to Change program. When she approached her husband, he was encouraging saying “If you have the courage to drive in this crazy traffic, then go for it!” Her dedication shining through, she takes three buses to reach the center each day and returns home to work as a domestic helper. She credits Steer to Change for increasing her confidence, overcoming her fear of public speaking, and most importantly helping her achieve her dream of becoming a driver.

A flyer promoting Steer to Change

A flyer promoting Steer to Change

  

“More than want, I need to be independent to support a better life for my children.”

Laxmi is bubbly and energetic, possessing the ability to strike up a conversation with any stranger and make them her friend. I knew her as a Pratishtha student in another Reaching Hand center, where she learned computers, work skills, and retail. Always blown away by her inquisitive nature and bubbly energy, I was excited when she joined Steer to Change. Despite her cheerful and uplifting demeanor, she has overcome tremendous adversity. Due to the support of a nearby church, Laxmi attended a Catholic school and was the only one of her siblings to receive a private education. Although, she aimed to complete her second PUC in Commerce, she was forced to drop out due to financial problems. As a child, she and her two brothers were largely supported by her mother’s work as a domestic helper. While her father worked as a security guard, he was plagued with alcoholism and spent most of his earnings on alcohol.

Following her marriage at age 18, Laxmi once again experienced the same vicious cycle she was accustomed to in her childhood. Her husband is also an alcoholic. Facing verbal abuse from her mother in law and physical abuse from her husband Laxmi knew she had to do something, but was unsure of what. Having three young children to support, she began working in data entry and as an office assistant for several companies. As her mother now earns meager wages as a water transporter, she felt burdened to support her children and her mother. Looking to increase her skillset, she learned of our Pratishtha skills training program through her grandmother. Following the completion of the three-month Pratishtha program, she joined Steer to Change. Laxmi feels equality is incredibly important and asked herself “If men can drive, than why can’t I?” Right now, her most important priority is helping her children receive a quality education. She credits Steer to Change for empowering her to be independent and allowing her to support her children.

 

The walls of Steer to Change are lined with inspirational quotes

The walls of Steer to Change are lined with inspirational quotes

“But, what will my husband say? Will he allow me to drive?” 

Growing up in Bangalore, Mary and her elder brother were supported by their mother, a nurse, as her father was unemployed. Following the completion of her 1st PUC, she got married and moved into her husband’s family house. While the arrangement was pleasant at first, she quickly became weary of her mother in law’s taunts and scolding, which she attributed to a dowry her mother in law believed was insufficient. Mary adores her husband, who works as a medical scribe, but unfortunately he was unable to see her distress.

Following the birth of her son, who is now 5, Mary began suffering from depression and did not feel a strong purpose in life. In the midst of her struggle, she returned to her mother’s home with her son. It was there that Margaret Auntie, who works at Reaching Hand, approached her about a new program called Steer to Change. Incredibly self-motivated to join this program, she was deeply afraid of asking her husband. After working up immense courage, she finally decided it would be best to ask permission to only learn computers and English. Although he gave her permission to join, she remained upset and was scared he would find out she was learning to drive. Wavering between joining and staying at home, she came to Reaching Hand multiple times in order to decide whether or not to join. Finally, Geeta, an accountant at our office, told Mary “Look, this opportunity may not come again, you should join.” It was that statement which ultimately swayed her to enroll.

After beginning the course, Mary continued to feel nervous. However, after the first few weeks she began to express herself and gain confidence. Two months later and hours spent behind the wheel, it was time to take her Learner’s License (LL) test. As she doesn’t have access to Internet except through her husband’s phone, she asked to use it in order to better understand the test’s format. At that point, she also decided to tell him she’d learned to drive. When she passed her test and received her Learner’s License, Mary became the first person in her family that was licensed to drive. While driving will be integral in Mary gaining independence, she says the most important thing she has learned at Steer to Change is problem solving. Little by little, this training has extended beyond the classroom and allowed her to confidently look for solutions to problems at home and serve as a role model for her son. Mary no longer feels stressed and anxious, is perpetually smiling, owning her independence and knowing her capabilities.

 

 

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