By Saurabh Sharma and Sumit Sharma:
Sharmila Kashyap is an ordinary-looking young woman with a rather unusual job as an e-rickshaw driver. This, after she pulled a manual rickshaw for quite sometime.
Orphaned as a toddler, raped when she was a child, a forced marriage with the rapist, and a potentially fatal abortion later, to then her husband abandoning her and their two young daughters, even as she was pregnant with their third – she’s seen and overcome miseries that would have broken a lesser mortal. But today, she stands on her own two feet and has dedicated her life to ensuring a better future for her daughters.
When she first started out, the sight of a woman pulling a rickshaw amused the people of Kanpur, Uttar Pradesh. It’s a backbreaking job and they would wonder about this petite woman cycling about. Recounting her early days, she says, “Men stare at you, you become conscious. But then you gradually start ignoring them as business is more important.”
Now aged 26, it was three years ago that she started off work as a rickshaw puller. With the peddle rickshaw, she could hardly make around ₹250-300 a day. Due to the exhausting nature of her job, she had to face several problems like backache, fatigue and difficulty when she was menstruating. After three years of pedaling around to make ends meet, her burden eased when a social worker helped her procure an e-rickshaw.
The new vehicle cost ₹90,000, of which she paid ₹20,000 as down payment. Now, she rides the e-rickshaw for more than 50 kilometres a day, depending upon the footfall of people on the road. She rides the rickshaw only for a few hours on Sundays and makes between ₹8,000 to ₹10,000 a month. Of this, ₹3,000 goes into the vehicle’s monthly installment.
Like Sharmila, there are 2.3 crore families across the country that are headed by women but only 3.1 lakh of them run their own enterprise, according to the 2011 census. Majority of them are employed in agriculture or manual labour.
From day one, the driving force that kept this young woman going was her commitment to provide for her daughters. While one of her daughters currently lives with her ex-husband, she lives with Shikha, 8, and Pooja, 5, who are the centre of her universe. A firm believer in the power of education, she, with the help of a well-wisher, got her daughters enrolled in an English-medium school. Her elder daughter studies in the third grade and the younger one is in lower kindergarten.
Every month, Sharmila has to shell out ₹2,000 towards her daughters’ school fees. She has even arranged for a school bus for them. She is adamant that her daughters get the best education, cost notwithstanding. She wants to see one of her daughters become a doctor, and the other one a teacher.
Having herself studied only till the second grade, she told Youth Ki Awaaz she’d do anything, and make any sacrifice to keep her daughters in an English-medium school.
Sharmila vaguely recalls a village called Bilgram in Madhya Pradesh as her place of birth. Her parents passed away when she was 18 months old. Within a couple of years, she and her elder brother Vishnu moved to Kanpur city. Suresh, who was a close friend of Vishnu, arranged accommodation for them.
“I was two-and-a-half-year-old when Suresh gave us a small room to live in. We were happy but my brother did not know of Suresh’s hidden intentions,” Sharmila says. “He used to come to our room and touch me inappropriately. I was too young to understand.”
Recounting the horror, she says one day Suresh came to the room and grabbed her from behind. “He threw me on the bed and tried to kiss me and groped me. But just then Vishnu came home for lunch.” While her brother’s arrival foiled Suresh’s evil plan, the latter finally took the opportunity when Vishnu moved to another city for work in 2004. He raped Sharmila.
“I was bleeding and lying on the floor. There was no one to turn to. I cleaned myself and did not tell anyone until my belly started showing; then I had to confide in my brother and neighbours,” Sharmila tells Youth Ki Awaaz.
Societal pressure forced Sharmila to marry him, but his family refused to accept her until she aborted the fetus. Though she was already seven months pregnant, she was compelled to medically terminate the pregnancy. Abortion at this stage could very well have killed her. She underwent all this when she was only 13.
Though her in-laws took her in their home, they never accepted her. After five years of putting up with their harassment, and three deliveries later, she finally moved out. She worked as a daily wage labourer for about a year, after which she got work in a factory, where she worked for two years. That was when she thought of pulling a rickshaw. Though it’s something only men are seen doing, she saw no reason she couldn’t do it.
She had the option of becoming a domestic help and at least one “well-wisher” recommended that she take up prostitution, but she decided on pulling a rickshaw instead.
At first, she said she found men reluctant to hop onto her rickshaw. At the same time, some women preferred commuting with her. Gradually, she came into her own and earned the acceptance and respect of her peers. She counts some of them as her friend now.
Currently, she lives in a makeshift house along the road. With her elder daughter only a few years away from puberty, she is concerned about her safety. She is planning to get married again. She has found love in an egg-seller who persuaded her into becoming his life partner. Sharmila says she and the man have agreed that he would ride the rickshaw during the day and sell eggs in the evening, while she would stay at home look after her daughters. For her, she says, it would be a relief to move into a house with a roof and a door that can be bolted from inside.
Note: The names of the people in this story have been changed, and faces blurred to protect identity.