SPEED: Slum People Education and Economic Development, an NGO in Chennai (ex-Madras) has so far trained 10 of the 20 woman rickshaw drivers -- of the 40-50,000 rickshaw drivers in Chennai. The SPEED trust is located in a Gandhi Nagar bidonville located under a highway near the central train station. A rectangle measuring 1 kilometre (1.5 miles) by 150 metres (.6-.7 miles), 18,000 people call it home. Like taxi driving, rickshaw driving in India is reserved to men (but see my earlier post on women taxi drivers on Mumbai). But the SPEED trust has begun to help women with "particularly heavy pasts" gain autonomy by becoming rickshaw drivers. SPEED pays for the license and the rickshaw (about 2000 euros (3000 USD) each) and the women pay them back over 3-4 years. The first woman to benefit from the program was Jayanthi, who had been sold for prostitution when she was 11. Married at 16, she was the widowed mother of 3 at 19 earning less than 5 (7.50 USD) euros per month cleaning houses. Today she earns the same amount per day driving a rickshaw like the ones above (credit).
In a country where women tend to be destined for marriage and motherhood, widows lose their social standing. They are often rejected by the families they left upon marrying as well as by their in-laws, who may blame them for their husband's death. These women often go into debt at usurious rates to pay for their husband's funerals and, for those who have daughters, to provide for the traditional puberty celebration and a dowry. To break the cycle of debt, SPEED is providing women the means to earn a living, be it a rickshaw or a sewing machine, and has even opened a nursery so that the rickshaw drivers can go to work worry-free.