Transformative Education in Motion: Indian ‘Women on Wheels’ empowers disadvantaged women

(Original article: UNESCO Bangkok, 10-20-2015)

India’s Women on Wheels aims to put women in the driver’s seat – literally, empowering them to take control of their own lives by learning a marketable skill and going full speed ahead into what remains a male-dominated area.

It’s a case study in the power of shifting learning and development to a new path that is more transformative, integrated and universal – in line with the new development agenda the world has recently embarked upon, the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), as well as the ambitious vision of Education 2030, which sets a path to “ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and promote lifelong learning for all”.

Lifelong learning, gender equality and skills development are key themes in Education 2030 and they’re also core components of what has made Women on Wheels such a success. The programme has thus far helped 441 women from disadvantaged backgrounds enter the male-dominated transport sector by acquiring a permanent driving license and providing a car-hire service “For Women, By Women”.

UNESCO Bangkok visited the Women on Wheels programme as part of the Asia-Pacific Regional Workshop on Gender, Education, Skills and Work, co-organized by ASPBAE and the Azad Foundation from 26-29 October 2015 in New Delhi, India.

According to Meenu Vadera, co-founder of the Azad Foundation which runs Women on Wheels, the programme has had a transformative impact on women’s lives, both at home and within their roles in wider society.

“Not only have most of them become principal breadwinners for their families, but they are also able to decide how the household income is used and take decisions to lead a life of dignity and respect”, she said. “It has made them realize the value of education, whether by investing in education for their daughters and siblings, or by enrolling in the national open schooling programme to acquire higher education qualifications and move on in their careers.”

The focus on practical skills and technical and vocational education and training (TVET) programmes to empower girls and women and opening up more flexible learning pathways is another main feature of Education 2030, and one underscored in the Kuala Lumpur Declaration, which came out of the Asia-Pacific Conference on Education and Training in August 2015.

Women on Wheels not only provides these women with a new career, but also a comprehensive six-to-eight month training programme that encompasses training on gender, communication, English and self-defence, as well as legal rights and sexual and reproductive health. The program’s flexibility is also a major factor in its retention; women facing personal struggles can stop their studies and rejoin at a later time and learn at their own pace.

Meena (pictured, centre) has been working as a chauffeur for three years and can testify to the power of this approach from her own personal journey that began when she heeded the advice of her father, a bus driver, to join the programme.

“Before I was very quiet and if somebody said something to me, I would just let it pass. Now I feel a lot more confident, and I’m not afraid to stand up for myself and talk back when I have to,” she said. “And I really enjoy driving!”

The Women on Wheels initiative also challenges stereotypical ideas of what type of work is “suitable” for women. In early 2014, UNESCO Bangkok’s report Gender, Jobs and Education. Prospects and Realities in the Asia-Pacific explored the factors influencing girls’ career perspectives and choices. The report found that gender norms and stereotypes with regard to what occupations are suited to women and men already exist among students as young as 15 years old. Sociocultural influences, labour market trends and education systems all contribute to shaping these perspectives, resulting in a continuous feedback loop whereby existing gender roles are perpetuated by existing social structures. Challenging these preconceptions, as Women on Wheels does, will be essential to realizing the Education 2030 vision.

For more information, please contact Ramya Vivekanandan [r.vivekanandan(at)] at the Education Policy and Reform Unit.

Written by Aliénor Salmon [a.salmon(at)]

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