She was just 14 years old, a child bride at the end of her rope contemplating suicide by throwing herself under the tires of a passing bus. But instead, Selvi Gowda boarded the bus.
That ride spirited her away from her village life in South India, where her abusive husband forced her to have sex with other men for money.
She ended up in the city of Mysore, India, in front of St. Philomena’s Church weeping, Selvi recalled. Someone noticed her and bought her to Odanadi, a shelter for abused women. She’s not sure who took her or how she ended up there — it’s all a blur, she said.
Now, 14 years later, Selvi has reinvented herself. She is not only a pioneering entrepreneur who owns a taxi company in Mysore, but also a voice for women’s rights.
Selvi’s transformative journey is chronicled in a documentary by Canadian filmmaker Elisa Paloschi called “Driving with Selvi.” Paloschi met Selvi at the women’s shelter in 2004. Paloschi was volunteering there and said that Selvi really stood out.
“I knew there was something interesting and then I went back the next year and the following year,” she said. In all, Paloschi followed Selvi for 10 years. “Selvi’s life kept evolving and so I couldn’t finish the film. But when I finally finished it, it was clear it was a healing journey,” she said.
When Selvi first arrived at Odanadi shelter, she said she “didn’t know anything about work.”
At first they taught her threading, a skill in which thread is used to pluck and shape eyebrows. It has become popular in beauty salons around the world.
But the director of Odanadi saw bigger things for Selvi and encouraged her to take driving lessons instead, she said.
At the time, Selvi didn’t even know how to ride a bicycle. She was petrified. The driving instructor told Odanadi’s director that she should probably do something else.
Two other women had already started their training and were already pretty good drivers. Eventually the three young women completed their training and the shelter raised funds to buy them a Maruti Suzuki Omni van to use as a taxi.
Once on the job, the women discovered that there was more to being a cabbie than being able to drive. It was difficult to interact with customers and the passengers could be intimidating. Selvi said she was afraid to even speak with customers at first. But while the other two women quit, she pushed ahead and went on to become known as India’s “first female taxi driver.”
“I’m not scared of driving on my own. I’m very self-aware and very aware of the type of passengers that I take on board,” she said.
She makes sure not to take any careless risks. For example, Selvi doesn’t roam the streets looking for fares. Instead, she partnered with travel agencies and developed regular clients in the area.
New passengers are often surprised to see a woman driver. Ironically, she said it’s women who have given her the most problems, but then frequently end up taking her number and becoming regular clients anyway, she said.
While the wages are OK, she said driving isn’t just about money. “[It] gave me peace of mind. I just thought about who my next passenger was going to be and what the next adventure was going to be and that kept me happy.”
She also met her husband, a driver named Viji, through work. The couple now has two children and Selvi is taking some time off to raise them.
Across the globe, more than 700 million young girls were married under the age of 18, according to UNICEF. A third of them reside in India.
To women who are being abused, Selvi preaches self-reliance.
“If you think that anyone, like your brother or your mother or anyone else, is going to come to your rescue, that’s never going to happen,” she said. “You need to figure out what you need for yourself and you have to find the confidence in yourself that you can achieve something. Then you can do whatever you want.”
Selvi recently came to New York for a symposium on how media can support social change and gender equality that was organized by ITVS, Women and Girls Lead Global, The Ford Foundation and USAID.
In October Selvi and the filmmaker will launch a 10-day bus and media tour. Selvi will be at the wheel to inspire conversations about gender violence and nontraditional livelihoods for women and girls. The goal of the film is to screen it to one million girls and women in India.