What do you need more than anything? Often, a simple question can lead to grand ideas fueling gender empowerment, agency and opportunities.
Kathleen Mulligan (in blue) with Wheels for Women trainees. Photo courtesy Kathleen Mulligan
“I was invited to teach my workshop at the Sakhi shelter for survivors of domestic violence run by the Cultural Academy for Peace in Kerala and led by founder, Beena Sebastian,” says Kathleen Mulligan, professor of voice and speech in the Department of Theater Arts at Ithaca College, as she describes how the idea for Wheels for Women started. “My husband, David, accompanied me too but stayed out of sight during class. He was moved by the work being done at the shelter. While sharing a cab with Beena after the workshop, David asked her: ‘What do you need more than anything,’ ” she continued.
“We need a vehicle,” Sebastian answers. “We get calls from women in the middle of the night. We need a safe way to respond to their calls and help remove them from potential harm,” she explains.
Mulligan and her husband became determined to purchase a vehicle for the shelter. When they returned to the United States, they held a benefit with a local summer theater, in hopes of raising enough money to purchase the economical Tata Nano they had researched. Mulligan worked with theater students, sharing with them the stories about the women and children she and her husband met at the shelter, and about the selfless work of all those involved. “For performing art students, your career can be very self-absorbing–you spend a lot of time struggling to get hired. I wanted my students to have a chance to put their focus on someone else and to see how their talents could be used to make a concrete difference in the lives of others. They jumped on board with enthusiasm,” she says.
Mulligan and her students raised nearly double the amount they hoped to raise. After the benefit, “we purchased a new, family-sized auto rickshaw for the shelter,” she says, and “out of that came the idea to create a training program for women to become licensed auto-rickshaw drivers.”
Wheels for Women believes economic empowerment is essential. “With economic freedom comes choice,” explains Mulligan. With economic empowerment, a woman “is not is not limited by a dependence on someone else to provide for her,” she continues. One of the first women that participated in the Wheels for Women auto-rickshaw training program had been abandoned by her husband and had two children. The organization provided her with the training to become a licensed auto-rickshaw driver. She now has a thriving business, lives in her own apartment, and her children are in college. She says that the men auto-rickshaw drivers are also quite supportive of her. As seen with Wheels for Women participants, economic empowerment provides many women with the opportunity to attain agency and independence.
In 2009-2010, Mulligan received a Fulbright-Nehru scholarship. At the time, she conducted “Find Your Voice” workshops, directed at empowering women across academic institutions in the United States. Many of the workshop participants at Cornell University were from India. Their stories about the challenges of growing up in the country and finding their own voices, encouraged her to apply to the fellowship program and focus her efforts in India. “I am passionate about using theater to tell stories and change minds, and protecting from abuse the most vulnerable, whether that is children, women, members of marginalized groups, or animals.” Mulligan has traveled back to India twice since her fellowship, and she plans to be back.
Ranjita Biswas is a Kolkata-based journalist. She also translates fiction and writes short stories.