The traffic light turns green and Rupa Swali pulls out on to the Western Express Highway in Mumbai, careful to avoid the swarm of motorbikes and autorickshaws zipping past.
Suddenly a bus runs the light in the other direction and careens towards her, its driver leaning on his horn. Swali is used to this and slams on her brakes, then glances at the passenger in the back seat to check for a reaction. Fortunately, the woman seems absorbed in her phone.
Navigating the jungle of Mumbai’s traffic has become second nature for Swali, who drives a taxi for a living. But until about four years ago she had never sat in a car, let alone driven one. That was when she decided to leave her physically abusive husband of 19 years.
Even though she was born and brought up in the city that is India’s commercial capital, she was unskilled and unsure of how to earn a living. And she had a teenage daughter to care for. “I wanted a job that would provide me with dignity along with financial security,” she says.
Of the nearly six million women living in the city, about half are daily wage earners living on the streets or in tiny shanties.
A management professional named Preeti Sharma Menon set up Viira Cabs (viira means courageous woman) in June 2011 to employ underprivileged women. She had launched the Viira motor training programme six months earlier, and Swali was one of the first batch of 200 women it taught to drive. After six months' free training, 80 earned their licences. Several now drive for Viira Cabs, which now has a fleet of 16 ecofriendly cabs and about 20 woman drivers who earn an average of 15,000 rupees – just over €200 – a month.
Even though India has a few other taxi services offering women-only drivers, Viira is the only one that provides comprehensive training, including self-defence and etiquette. (Every driver is equipped with pepper spray and a GPS device with panic alerts.)
In a country where violence against women is shockingly prevalent – a woman is reported raped every 20 minutes, according to government figures – women-only taxi services are a relief to women passengers, says Menon.
In December 2012 the level of violence against women got international attention after the gang rape of a student on a bus in Delhi. She later died of her injuries. Two years later a 27-year-old executive was allegedly raped by an Uber driver in New Delhi; the trial in that case is ongoing.
“Given the background of women’s safety in the country, I think a woman-drivers-only cab service brought relief to many women who commute alone, especially at night,” says Menon.
Revati Sharma, a 32-year-old who lives in a suburb of Mumbai, uses Viira regularly. "My parents are increasingly paranoid about me travelling alone to work," she says. "I work in an advertising agency where there are no set hours. When I returned at 3am I used to see my mother waiting anxiously for me at the door.
“Now I call Viira when I have to return from late nights. And, frankly, I am also much more relaxed when a woman is driving. I can doze off to sleep.”