Alpa’s Journey: Becoming a rickshaw driver and challenging gender roles in India

For most of her life, 20-year-old Meriya Alpa Ramjibhai grew up doing what was expected of her: taking care of her siblings, doing household chores and keeping her opinions to herself. She was also expected, like so many young women, to marry when her parents found a suitable husband. But things are changing for Alpa.

Earlier this year, she joined a summer-long training to become an auto-rickshaw driver — work traditionally reserved for men. This “Women Driver Project” was run by AJWS grantee Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan (KMVS) with an ambitious aim: to empower young women to take control of their futures and gain financial independence.

20-year-old Alpa recently completed a training to become a rickshaw driver — a profession traditionally reserved for men. Photo by Suresh Bijlani.

Alpa is the oldest sibling in a family of seven, from the ethnic minority Marvada community of Bhuj, in Western India. For the past six years, she’s helped her father, a construction worker, to support their family by working up to 12 hours a day in an ice cream factory. She earns about $85 a month. In India, under 20% of women participate in the workforce — a figure that included Alpa. But she felt trapped by low wages and limited opportunities. So when she learned about KMVS’s training for young women, she was thrilled — driving her own auto-rickshaw could earn much more money, give her more autonomy and expand not only what’s possible for her family, but for her own future as well.

We asked Alpa to take us along on her journey as it happened through spring and summer 2023 — below, read her own words about her transformative experience.

April 2023

Before I started the training, I had a few major fears: That people would laugh at me when they saw me driving the rickshaw; and that people would taunt me for my choice of profession. I was fearful of my parents’ reaction, too, but they were supportive — that helped me gather the courage to move ahead on this path.

I’ve been working at the ice cream factory for six years, and I’m not satisfied with how much I earn compared to the amount of work I do. I want a better life for myself and my family. Becoming a rickshaw driver is a great opportunity — I can already see my bright future ahead.

In the first few weeks, I’ve already learned how to hold and release the clutch, how to apply the break and adjust my foot, and how to change gears while driving. We’ve begun driving in open ground, and right now I’m learning to drive on the road and manage the vehicle in traffic. Driving in reverse has been the most difficult for me.

As I’ve learned rickshaw driving, I finally feel that I have found a space just to be myself.

May 2023

Somehow, driving a rickshaw has already become an integral part of my life. I find this process liberating. Earlier, I didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle. Now, I’ll be driving my own auto — that makes me extremely proud.

It’s no matter if people are not accepting of my choice of profession yet; I’ll be the first woman to drive a rickshaw in my entire community. And I feel proud to pass along such hopes to many other girls just like me — I hope they, too, will start to dream big and bold. At the beginning of this training, I was confined in a state of self-doubt. I don’t fear anymore — not from social norms binding me in their rules, and not from driving. I’ve started laughing more. I am ready to live my life freely.

Some people in my community say: “If you drive an auto, no one will marry you!” My neighbors have ridiculed me. These comments make me anxious, but I cannot listen to them. I want this gender discrimination to end in my society and for all girls at large. Girls in my area should study and focus on their career-building. They should have a career of their choice, and agency to exercise it.

I’m still working in the ice cream factory — about 12 hours per day, and I spare two hours each day to devote to my rickshaw driving training. I’ve mastered driving in reverse, on steep roads, and parking. I’m also learning how to talk to customers and negotiate the fare per the distance we’ll cover.

July 2023

Now that I completed the training, I want to buy an auto as soon as possible! [KMVS will help Alpa acquire a government loan to purchase a rickshaw.] Working as a driver will definitely help my family. My father had a gambling habit, and my mother had to undergo a complex surgery — financially, my family came to ashes. I had to leave my education after eight grade to work in the factory.

So what’s happening right now is beyond my imagination. I used to live solely for others, but I am ready to live the life I want to live. Earlier, I wasn’t able to take decisions for myself. Now, I have become more vocal. There’s no fear in me regarding my marriage eligibility because of the profession I choose to pursue.

As the oldest sibling in a family of seven, Alpa has always taken on responsibility to help her parents. As a rickshaw driver, she’ll be able to work on her terms. Photo by Suresh Bijlani.

I’m going to help my family become financially stable, and then I want to resume my studies. I dream of having a smartphone of my own. I dream of wearing nice clothes — even jeans. Good days seem to be approaching my doorstep. All my dreams seem to be coming true, even if slowly.

And I want this for all the girls in my area. I hope my achievement will set an example for other girls — if I become a successful driver, many taboos in my community will shatter. Girls here may get the chance to fulfill their own dreams. And I want girls to flourish in their careers. I want them to become free like birds. And I hope professions like driving become gender-neutral. 

I want to say one last thing: Girls are not meant to be bound in the kitchen. Our society cages us and our dreams. So I want to say: Please, let us dream!

“Good days seem to be approaching my doorstep,” says Alpa after completing KMVS’s rickshaw driver training. Photo by Suresh Bijlani.