A glimpse of the e-auto journey
A glimpse of the e-auto journeyMOWO Social Initiatives

How This Hyderabad NGO Is Encouraging Women To Learn Driving

Led by Hyderabad-based NGO "MOWO Social Initiatives," the 3,333+ km campaign journeyed from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir using electric vehicles to encourage women to pick up electric auto driving as a livelihood

Spotting female auto drivers on the road assures one that gender constraints about vehicles are finally being shunned. It may not be a pan-India sight yet, but female auto drivers have carved their niche. From India's first female autorickshaw driver, Shila Dawre, to now many salwar kameez-clad auto drivers, women are driving this male-dominated public transport for aspirational and financial reasons. Besides breaking stereotypes, many, like Delhi's first female autorickshaw driver, Sunita Choudhary, ride for sustainability. However, challenges like safety and gender taboo continue to paralyse the prospects of women from lower-income families to become breadwinners. The conservative notions box women into pre-defined roles, depriving them of earning their livelihood. Despite many state programmes to uplift these women, a great deal of work needs to be done on the ground.

MOWO founder Jai Bharathi
MOWO founder Jai BharathiMOWO Social Initiatives

Understanding the gravity of the issue, Hyderabad-based "MOWO Social Initiatives" has been actively advocating sustainable mobility and female auto drivers. In March, the NGO culminated the second season of its flagship programme, "Moving Boundaries." The transformative 3,333+ km national campaign traversed from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir using electric vehicles to encourage women to pick up electric auto driving as a livelihood.

Spearheaded by MOWO founder Jai Bharathi, an avid motorcyclist herself, an eight-member all-women convoy rode across five states to identify and train 500 women to drive electric autorickshaws and encourage them to join the thriving mobility sector. Bharathi spoke to OT about the journey's challenges and takeaways.

Excerpts from the interview:


Could you provide insights into the "Moving Boundaries 2" initiative? How long was this journey, and which cities did you cover?


"Moving Boundaries 2" is a flagship advocacy campaign of MOWO Social Initiatives, a not-for-profit organisation established in 2019, working towards enabling mobility for women in India. This transformative 3,333+ km national campaign traversed from Kanniyakumari to Kashmir using electric vehicles to encourage women to pick up electric auto driving as a livelihood. In collaboration with ETO Motors, SIDBI & supported by Tork Motors, we have completed this journey with an all-women crew in 23 days. The campaign was led by Jai Bharathi, founder of MOWO Social Initiatives, an avid motorcyclist with various accolades and awards covering over 100,000 kilometres across India, Southeast Asia and the United States.

Starting from Kanyakumari on March 8, 2024, the route spanned through key cities, including Madurai, Bengaluru, Hyderabad, Nagpur, Indore, Jaipur, and Delhi, concluding the expedition in Jammu on March 30, five days ahead of the actual schedule. The campaign featured an eight-member crew embarking, including five female auto drivers who drove in relay format: Naseem, Bhavani, Prabha, Reena and Saritha on the journey, steering an ETO electric auto-rickshaw, Bharathi leading the tour on a Kratos R electric motorcycle from Tork Motors, and Tamanna driving the electric SUV and providing logistics support along with Stacey. The film production crew Juhi, Prachi & Raghavi were also on the tour.


Who has been your inspiration behind actively involving more women in mobility within India? 


In February 2018, I set out on a first-of-its-kind cross-country motorcycle expedition across Southeast Asia, covering 17,000 km in 56 days. I found the inspiration while travelling through Thailand, where she saw many confident women driving on the roads and providing mobility services. That is when I realised that it is essential to deconstruct socially defined gender roles and enable women access to economic opportunities to enhance their confidence and create a safe environment on the roads.

As a champion of women's mobility, I decided to pass on this driving skill to women in India and lead the way in making Indian streets safer by establishing Moving Women—MOWO in 2019. This not-for-profit organisation empowers women through mobility as a skill for empowerment and employment.

In the last five years, MOWO trained 3500+ women in India with motor driving skills and was pivotal in establishing India's first Motor Training Centre exclusively for women as technical partners to the Dept of Women & Child Welfare, Govt of Telangana. MOWO aims to transform the mobility ecosystem to make it more inclusive for women. Our initiatives are opening up sustainable and resilient livelihood avenues for women while debunking all challenges that stand in the way of making roads and public spaces safer and accessible to them.

Jai Bharathi, founder of MOWO Social Initiatives leading the campaign on an electric bike
Jai Bharathi, founder of MOWO Social Initiatives leading the campaign on an electric bikeMOWO Social Initiatives

What are the primary goals you aim to achieve through this initiative?


With women constituting over 48 per cent of the Indian population, their representation in the thriving mobility sector remains below 2 per cent. Recognising this gap as an opportunity, the aim was to identify and train 500 women to drive electric auto-rickshaws across five states and make them a part of the thriving mobility sector. Beyond the mileage, this journey served as a platform for the crew to conduct insightful awareness workshops. These workshops focused on educating women and communities about electric vehicles (EVs) and highlighting the potential for women to embark on a path of microentrepreneurship. By becoming auto drivers, women can enjoy the flexibility of choosing their working hours, ultimately enhancing their earning capabilities.


What were some of the significant challenges encountered during the journey?


Early summer did add up to limiting the riding hours to mornings and evenings, sometimes leading to riding beyond sunset. While we do not prefer riding at night, for about three to four days, we rode until 9 pm. Part of the road construction works on the NH44 made it more challenging, but it also allowed testing of the electric vehicles for their best performance. Road closures in specific patches on the highway also forced us to take detours into some villages, which would increase the distance and cause extra stops for charging. Lack of awareness of electric vehicles posed initial challenges when we had to charge the ETO auto and the Tork bike at the hotels and rest stops. Though both needed regular 16 Amp power sockets, it took us some effort to educate people on the safety of charging them.

The team of 'Moving Boundaries' posing for a photograph after a workshop
The team of 'Moving Boundaries' posing for a photograph after a workshop MOWO Social Initiatives

Since charging electric two-wheelers and three-wheelers, especially outside urban areas, isn't common, we weren't sure how to pay for the power we used at several locations. We ended up paying INR 200 to 400 to some who asked, while most offered free charging. As we covered more than 1000 km, convincing everyone that charging with simple power outlets was safe became much more accessible. As for the electric SUV, we could charge it with EV charging infrastructure along the NH 44.


How did people respond to your initiative while you were on the move?


Initially, people were sceptical of this initiative, considering all-electric vehicles and more so with an all-women crew. But as we progressed through the journey, covering an average of 150 km/day, everyone was inspired by our trip. People were curious to see the electric auto, which looked more like a mini taxi and the sturdiness it offered. Many enquired about the performance of the vehicles and were astonished knowing that we were traversing through the country so effortlessly.

The team of 'Moving Boundaries' with Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari
The team of 'Moving Boundaries' with Union Transport Minister Nitin Gadkari MOWO Social Initiatives

A few also commented that we had no male escorts on the tour. Overall, the women we met through the journey were inspired to see our women auto drivers driving the electric auto so confidently and were very motivated to sign up for auto-driving sessions. Many from the hotels, restaurants, and fuel stations came forward to help us, especially since we had to charge the vehicles on the go. Many denied taking any charges, mentioning this is a little bit of their contribution to our initiative to bring women into the driving sector.


In what ways does your journey contribute to raising awareness about e-mobility for women? 


Mobility reflects the state of gender equality in a society. Seeing an all-women crew driving all-electric vehicles was a massive shift in breaking barriers to seeing driving as a non-traditional skill for women. Influence behavioural change in women to adopt sustainable mobility options using electric vehicles over conventional ICE vehicles. Traditionally, women in India are often not encouraged to adapt to newer technological advancements, specifically in the mobility sector.

Being a confident driver inculcates a sense of independence and self-reliance in a woman. As a result, she is more open to the educational and economic opportunities she can utilise, increasing her workforce participation and positively impacting the economy. This was widely achieved when women got to see the women electric auto drivers as we traversed through the country. After experiencing first-hand the ease of learning and operating an EV, the women learnt about the immense fuel cost savings by switching to EVs.

Informal conversations with the drivers helped assess their apprehensions about the safety of EVs and the range and charging of EVs. Our audiences were women and girls above 20, especially from lower-income groups. These women typically do not have access to better education and often struggle to make ends meet. Jobs in the mobility market open up a new domain of flexible jobs that do not require them to have educational qualifications.

Through the campaign and social media outreach, 400 women have already signed up for the electric auto training program.

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