In the chaotic streets of Mysore, in the South Indian state of Karnataka, taxis, rickshaws, and lorries often swarm the roads, competing for space and customers. Here, a then-18-year-old named Selvi became the first woman to drive down the streets as a licensed taxi driver. Doe eyed, with a wide, infectious smile and a lanky frame, Selvi (who does not have an official last name) doesn’t look like the average cabbie—and her passengers would never guess their driver was once a child bride.
After being forced at 14 to marry someone nearly twice her age, then enduring an abusive marriage that lasted on and off for two years, she escaped.
“I felt as if I were a caged bird that was let loose,” Selvi, now 31, recalls to TakePart of fleeing a life in which she often thought of suicide. “The home [where I was wed] was kind of dark, in a forest place, little hilly, with boulders. The wedding had happened early morning. All I could remember was the darkness that was around it. It had occurred to me, ‘What if I got on one of these boulders? Could I just kill myself?’ ”
Selvi was raised by her mother in a village in Karnataka alongside two brothers and a sister. Home life was difficult. “They used to put restrictions on me that I should not do this or that,” she says. “I felt as if I was bound and tied up.”
When she was married off as a teen to a man from another village, life got worse. Selvi’s husband was abusive and forced her to have sex with other men. She ran away whenever she saw an opportunity. “As soon as I could lay my hands on 50 rupees, I would go and catch a bus back home,” she recalls, but her family always made her return to her husband. “I knew my brother would take a stick and beat me up because I ran away from my husband’s place. Still, I would go.”
At 17, she escaped her husband and her family for good. With the assistance of a social worker, she found her way to Odanadi, a shelter for girls and women who had faced gender-based violence. There, she developed a desire to drive—apt for a girl who was always looking to escape.
The shelter’s founders, Stanly Varghese and Parashuram Lingegowda, taught the women there how to run a business, including accounting and finance skills, and helped Selvi get her driver’s license. In 2004, she became the first woman in Karnataka to acquire a taxi license, and eventually she started her own taxi business, which she operated for about a year. Asked if she has ever been afraid to accept male passengers, she has “no fear,” she replies. “Even if such a situation occurs where I have to drive male passengers, they will behave properly if my behavior is correct.”
While Selvi’s life has transformed for the better, her mission now is to help other women and girls escape similar situations—a pursuit that tipped into her own family life a few months ago, when she heard her older brother was trying to marry off his 15-year-old daughter.
“I could not keep quiet when I heard about their plans to marry off my niece,” Selvi says, adding that back in her day, there was nobody to protect children and scare the parents who arranged such marriages. “I thought, ‘If my brother stops talking to me, that is fine.’ But I said [to him], ‘If the police arrive, they would take you to task, is that understood?’ He decided to stop the marriage because he thought that I would go there and try to stop the wedding because I still carry remorse about my own forced marriage.”
Her aim to help others is getting greater exposure, thanks to a new documentary about her life titled Driving With Selvi. When Selvi first arrived at Odanadi in 2008, her tenacity caught the eye of Canadian filmmaker Elisa Paloschi, who became captivated by her story. The film catalogs her life from when she was 18 to the present day; it premiered in Canada last year.
“Her courage, strength, and drive to be an agent of change in her own life was remarkable,” Paloschi tells TakePart. “She took control not only of the steering wheel but the direction of her life.”
These days, Selvi is working alongside Paloschi on an awareness campaign called “Save Her a Seat,” a bus tour that will bring the film from village to village in 2017 to screen for women and girls; the program will also help support 10 to 15 women enroll in a six-month commercial driving training program. Selvi’s hope is to help other women who have been in situations like hers and if they want to leave home, she says, to help them find a way to be independent.
“I am not capable of helping them by giving money,” she says. “Instead, I can talk to them and tell them my story.”
Selvi has also found a happy ending of her own. In 2008, she met Vijii, another driver, and was soon engaged once again. But this time, she was elated: Her husband did not need a dowry to marry her and was supportive of her work. The two wed a year later and today have two young daughters.
What other big dreams lie ahead for her?
“The only wish that I have is to work until the end of my life and bring up my children in the best way possible—and to the best of my ability bring the other women who face difficulties like me out of that situation,” Selvi says.