When R. Bhuvaneswari was deserted by her husband 20 years ago, she had no job to support her family. Her elder son was one year old then and her younger son just 10 days old.

“I had no support from my parents in Chennai and I sought refuge at a trust in Madurai. I learnt to drive an autorickshaw and obtained my licence with the help of the trust,” says Ms. Bhuvaneswari, one of the first women autorickshaw drivers in the city.

Today, she works for more than 12 hours and supports her family. “When I first started driving autorickshaw, a lot of snide comments were passed at me by passersby, some of them by women. Now people look at me in admiration,” Ms. Bhuvaneswari says.

The city has around 10 women autorickshaw drivers, and most of them chose the profession after the death of their husbands. Some of them have been deserted by their spouses.

“The locality I lived in had poor bus connectivity. After I lost my husband in a road accident eight years ago, I felt driving an autorickshaw in my area will be a good means to support my two children, who were in school at that time,” says K. Chithra. Inspired by Ms. Chithra, her sister P. Kalaiselvi also became an autorickshaw driver.

The work hours of the women autorickshaw drivers is no different to that of the men – they encounter drunkards and come across people who pass inappropriate comments – but have learnt to manage all of that effortlessly.

“Over the years, with our experience we can easily identify trouble makers and avoid them. Women auto drivers should always be on the guard to deal with trouble makers. I learnt martial arts during my stay in the trust, and I also rely on my presence of mind to cope up with unwarranted situations if they arise,” says Ms. Bhuvaneswari.

An autorickshaw driver for 17 years, P. Selvanayagi says she knows silambam. “I do not know if my martial skill will come to my aid in a risky situation, but I think such skills are a must to women autorickshaw drivers in addition to an alert mind because times have changed,” she adds.

“There have been incidents where women who were keen to take up the profession were stopped by their families. Some women learnt to drive autorickshaws, but did not drive for a living because they lacked confidence. More women should develop courage and take up the profession,” Ms. Selvanayagi signs off.

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