In India’s capital – recently voted the worst city in the world for sexual assault against women– commercial taxi and bus drivers are being offered free training to teach them about gender equality and how to treat women. Our Observer helps run these training sessions.

Five years ago, Jyoti Singh was brutally assaulted and gang-raped in a private bus in Delhi, India. She died of her injuries. Since then, the Indian government passed new sexual assault laws, widening the definition of rape (although the law does still not recognise marital rape). Then in another widely publicised case in Delhi in 2014, Uber driver Shiv Kumar Yadav raped his female passenger. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, and the government imposed mandatory ‘gender sensitisation’ training for commercial drivers wishing to renew their taxi licences.


"This auto respects women" – the badge given to people who have completed gender sensitisation training.

 

An auto rickshaw driver who completed his gender sensitisation training. Photo sent by Manas Foundation.

Mental health organisation Manas Foundation launched their gender sensitisation training – dubbed ‘Building Bonds’ – in January 2014. It runs in partnership with the Indian government’s Department of Transport. The training deliberately creates ‘cognitive dissonance’ (a sense of discomfort resulting from the realisation that one has conflicting viewpoints) by confronting participants about their beliefs and pointing out to them their inherent contradictions. The organisation believes that this is what makes the training effective: it uses techniques from mental health to guide men towards an awareness of gender justice. For instance, trainers remind drivers of the fact that they wear jeans, install air conditioning in their cars, have smartphones and send their daughters to school: all examples of a changing, modern society. They have to accept that with these changes also come others - the increasing emancipation of women. If the drivers do not believe that women should commute alone across the city, or travel at night, the trainers remind them: "And where will you get work?" The majority of these drivers' passengers are women.
 

“They want to know how to handle women’s ‘provocation’”

Naveen Kumar is a clinical psychologist and one of the founding trustees of the Manas Foundation. He described the training and how it works.

Unfortunately for Delhi, in the past few years we have acquired the dubious distinction of being somewhere where bad incidents happen to women. There is a change happening in society – where there are more women in the workplace, and more and more women moving around the city. It was clear that something needed to be done to make sure women can move from one space to another safely.

"Why are we being trained?"

The Manas Foundation began these classes four and a half years ago. We have trained approximately 250,000 commercial drivers – bus drivers, taxi drivers, rickshaw drivers… On a daily basis, we train about 300-400 people – and do that six days a week.


One of the training sessions.

One question that they always ask is, ‘Why us? Why are we being trained?’

It would not be fair to say that drivers are more prone to sexual harassment. But there are certain things that make it more likely: women in close proximity and in an enclosed space with a male driver. The time of travel is important too: travelling early in the morning or late at night, or travelling to far off areas. This makes the possibility of sexual harassment much higher.

Drivers are a peculiar section of the community. They work alone, and are often migrants, coming from other parts of India. They move around the city and may work far away from where they live. They don’t have a boss or a company. There’s no accountability. They have a licence and that’s all. For drivers who don’t come from a big city, the women they know at home and the female commuters they see in the city seem so different. We explain to them the change that is happening in society. Nobody has spoken to the drivers about these subjects before.


A trainer leads a brainstorming session on typical perceptions of gender roles.

The sticker given to participants upon completing the training. Source: Instagram

One of the questions they ask is how do they handle the provocation that comes from the woman’s side? If a woman is travelling intoxicated, or if she is wearing a revealing dress, or if she is overly friendly – all of these things matter. Particularly dress – this is something that comes up a lot. The trainers have to take a lot of time to explain to them that how a woman dresses is her personal choice and they cannot impose their own sensibilities on that.



Badges and spray-painted signs proving that a driver has completed the gender sensitisation training.

Training based on concepts used in mental health

We want to bring about change in society. Our training is based on behavioural change logic. Everything is made to create a social commitment, and when you make a social commitment you are bound to behave in a certain way.

“We are still a very patriarchal society”

It isn’t just limited to one training session. A driver who is trained then becomes a part of our organisation and we keep engaging with them on a regular basis. When they complete the training, each driver is given branding that says ‘I respect women’. They put it somewhere on their vehicle where it can be clearly seen by commuters. Then when the driver wants to renew his licence he can show the branding to prove he has done the training. Drivers who have had the training tell us that they incorporate it into their daily lives. But we are still a very patriarchal society. It is a slow process of changing attitudes.

A study by the Thomson Reuters Foundation, published in October 2017, found that Delhi ranked jointly with Sao Paulo as the world’s worst megacity for sexual violence against women.

Taxi drivers who completed their training.

Article written with
Catherine Bennett

Catherine Bennett , Anglophone Journalist