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Breaking barriers: Pakistan's female only rickshaw drivers

The launch of a female-only rickshaw taxi service in the city of Punjab Chakwal has begun breaking barriers and challenging gender stereotypes for women and girls in Pakistan.

Kiran transports a passenger in her pink rickshaw taxi
Kiran transports a passenger around Punjab Chakwal in her pink rickshaw taxi.

Toot toot! The launch of a female-only rickshaw taxi service in the city of Punjab Chakwal is breaking barriers and challenging gender stereotypes for women and girls in Pakistan.

The new, all-female initiative, launched by Plan International Pakistan, is providing the drivers and passengers that use it with a level of safety and security that, until now, had been hard to find.

The vibrant pink rickshaws are enabling those who use them to feel safer as they travel through their city, as well as less restricted in where they go and who they go with.

They are gaining more confidence, more independence and claiming a new position on the road – a position in Pakistan that is dominated by men.

Female rickshaw drivers in Pakistan
Female rickshaw drivers in Pakistan are helping girls and young women to feel safe.

A new freedom of movement

Gauhar Iqbal – Advocacy and Communications Coordinator at Plan International Pakistan – explains why this is such a significant step forward:

 I feel honoured to be a role model for girls in my community.

“Traditionally, driving has been considered taboo for women in conservative areas of Pakistan. It is estimated that less than 5% of women own a driver’s license here.

“As a result, they have little option but to ride by rickshaw taxi to work and school and, sadly, they face harassment and bullying along the way. The only way they can avoid this is if they are accompanied by their husbands, fathers or brothers, so their freedom of movement is severely restricted and this affects their ability to work. According to the International Labour Organisation, three-quarters of women in Pakistan don’t work, and this is largely due to the lack of safe transportation options they have between their homes and potential workplaces.”

Iqbal continues: “But the rickshaw service we’ve launched – along with other similar initiatives in Pakistan – is working to change this, and is breaking barriers in other exciting ways as well: the drivers are proving to be excellent role models for young girls in their communities, many of whom have never seen a woman earning her own living and being financially independent before.”

Traditionally, driving has been considered taboo for women in Pakistan. Less than 5% own a license.
Traditionally, driving has been considered taboo for women in Pakistan. Less than 5% own a driving license.

A step towards independence

The drivers are able to take between 10 and 12 women to their destination each day, and they already have some regular customers. They can earn up to 300 rupees ($3 USD) in a day which, although still a meagre wage, is an important supplement, and a step away from being confined to their homes and wholly dependent on their families for their livelihood.

This is particularly critical in Punjab Chakwal, where women hold a much lower economic status than men. They own less land and have less involvement and influence in decision-making.

However, with the drivers already making the headlines and proving popular at home, social attitudes to women could soon begin to change and the discrimination they face could finally, one day, be a thing of the past.

Female only rickshaw service in Pakistan
A female-only rickshaw service in Pakistan is giving girls and women more freedom.

Role models in the community

Determined to make a difference and to further the rights of women and girls in her country, driver Najm Un Nisa said that receiving the keys to her rickshaw for the first time was a very important day in her life, adding:

I feel socially and economically empowered.

“I feel socially and economically empowered, but at the same time, I wonder what people will say. I am determined to drive the rickshaw and to change the community – I feel honoured to be a role model for girls in my community.”

Bali Rani, another of the new rickshaw drivers, explains her motivation for taking up her new role:

“I belong to a gypsy community and have two children. I used to beg on the streets. I was not aware of the kind of life that I was living until Plan International told me about becoming a driver. The service offered me a decent and respectful way to earn an income and meet my children’s expenses. Now I aim to support my family and provide an education for my children.”

The pink rickshaws in Punjab Chakwal can only be driven and used by girls and women.
The pink rickshaws in Punjab Chakwal can only be driven and used by girls and women.

The idea for the rickshaw taxi service first emerged in Lahore. It was later replicated by Plan International Pakistan which hopes to expand the service to other districts. This will mean more young women are employed and empowered, giving freedom of movement to hundreds more who will be able to safely travel through their cities without fear of abuse and street harassment.

Read more about girls in Pakistan tackling gender stereotypes - by learning digital skills