NEW DELHI — Delhi rickshaw driver Narotan Singh was never interested in the problems faced by women and girls—his only interaction with the opposite sex was with females from his middle-class family such as his mother, wife and daughter.
Weaving through the streets of the Indian capital, the 37-year-old driver would often frown or stare through his rear view mirror at female passengers wearing tight-fitting jeans or skirts, or make a comment about how they should not smoke or be out late.
But Singh’s chauvinistic ways are now behind him.
Last month his attitude toward women was transformed by a class on gender sensitization run by the charity Manas Foundation and Delhi’s Transport Department.
“When I was told that we have to do this training, I was not happy as I thought it was an unnecessary waste of my time—time which I could use to make some money by picking up passengers,” said Singh from the driver’s seat of his green and yellow motorized three-wheeler.
“But when I went into the training and understood the problems faced by women on Delhi’s streets and that I had the ability to change this, I realized that this is something that everyone should know about.”
Singh is one of 40,000 auto-rickshaw drivers in Delhi who have already attended the classes and are helping to spread the message of respect for women across the city, which has become known as India’s “rape capital.”
According to the National Crime Records Bureau, the number of reported rapes in India rose by 35.2 percent to 33,707 in 2013 from the previous year. Delhi was the city with the highest number of rapes, reporting 1,441 in 2013.
Experts say the media attention surrounding the fatal gang-rape of a 23-year-old woman on a bus in Delhi in December 2012 helped to raise awareness about safety for women on transport and in public places.
The attack, which prompted thousands of urban Indians to protest against rising violence against women, also highlighted the need to change the attitudes of men and boys in India’s largely conservative and patriarchal society.
“We show the city’s shocking statistics on rape and then provide anecdotes and pictures to drive home the point of how serious the situation is,” said Smita Tewari Pant, a trainer on gender sensitization from the Manas Foundation.
“We also explain that … businesses will be affected as tourists will stop coming to Delhi if violence against women continues as it is.”
But what has been most effective in engaging participants, said Pant, is the message that auto-rickshaw drivers are, in essence, the city’s gate-keepers who have the power to change the situation by making women feel secure and respected.
The message allows drivers to feel that they are not part of the problem, but part of the solution, she added.
Don’t Judge Women
To secure their annual auto-rickshaw fitness certificate from the Transport Department, Delhi’s 120,000 drivers are now required to attend the one-hour gender class every year.
Pant said the course had received a positive response and drivers proudly displayed stickers reading “This responsible rickshaw respects and protects women” in Hindi on their vehicles.
Singh said the course had changed his thinking so much so that he now talks to other drivers, as well as his friends and family, about gender equality.
The training should be expanded to taxi and bus drivers, he said, adding that if this kind of sensitization had started five years ago, the infamous Delhi gang rape may not have occurred.
“After the training, I realize working women’s problems much better. They face many issues – they have to manage their home life and they have to deal with pressures at work so they should at least feel comfortable when they commute,” said Singh.
“The training made me and other drivers think twice about our behavior towards our female passengers.
“We used to think ‘I only had a little look at what she was wearing’ or ‘I only made that comment for her own good’ but now we realize that it’s really none of our business and we should not judge women, but respect them.”