Three months ago, Mala Sureshkumar became one of the 30 women plying an autorickshaw on Chennai’s streets. It’s a feat that this 26-year-old petite mother of two could hardly have dreamt of undertaking five years ago when she was married off by her mother and consigned to the role of a homemaker.

It’s a new life: Sureshkumar is one of the 30 women auto drivers in Chennai. G.V. Nathan/Mint

Today Sureshkumar is divorced not just from her husband, who left her for another woman, but also from her previous low-paying jobs as a doorknob saleswoman and a domestic help.

The chief catalyst for this metamorphosis has been the Chennai-based Slum People Education and Economic Development (SPEED) Trust. Started a decade ago by a French citizen, Phillippe Malet, the group focuses on livelihood training for poor, destitute women. More importantly, it provides support systems of crèche and evening English-language tuitions for children of these women and other people in the slum for a token fee.

At the Sathyavani Muthu Nagar slum, barely a kilometre from the bustling Central Station, the 6ft-tall, kurta-clad Malet stands out amidst the teeming squalor that stretches a kilometre in length and about a quarter-kilometre in breadth. Nearly 2,600 families, or 18,000 people, live in this clutter—one of the largest shanty towns in Chennai. Malet’s group tracks and follows around 120 of those families. The trust has been working with some families, such as those of Sureshkumar and Revathi Mani, for close to a decade.

Malet, who started the SPEED Trust in 2000 after coming to India as an outreach volunteer, has a clear focus. He finds sponsors from France or Switzerland who provide 1,000-1,500 a month for destitute women and their families. The women are provided help on the condition that they send their children to school and enroll for one of SPEED’s self-employment training programmes, such as bag making, basket-weaving or autorickshaw driving.

When Sureshkumar approached them for help, SPEED Trust did some background research on her. The fact that her husband had abandoned her made her a priority recipient. Once her case was made to a sponsor, a bank account was opened in her name and the funds have been transferred directly to her account every month since then.

“Most women we have trained are the ones who have previously suffered because they were forced into prostitution or are HIV patients or have been divorced or abandoned by their husbands," says Malet. “A majority of them were getting about 300 a month before enrolling for our training. Now they can expect to earn the same amount in a day."

The training schedule for driving autos involves an initial three months on the basics of driving, after which the women get their learner licences. During this phase the Trust also teaches them how to interact with customers. It then buys them an auto; they have to pay off the money lent to them by SPEED in monthly instalments.

On a mid-October afternoon, the otherwise noisy crèche on the ground floor of SPEED Trust’s office was enveloped in a silence broken only by the hum of the fan as around 30 children, mostly below the age of 10, took a siesta.

Among them was five-year-old Naveena, Sureshkumar’s daughter, who had returned earlier in the afternoon from the English-medium Eve Matriculation School. Outside, her mother had just returned after ferrying a bunch of school students. This pick-up and drop-off routine, six days a week, earns Sureshkumar 2,000 a month. For the rest of the day, she mostly goes around the beach area to ferry a few regular customers.

Despite a late 10am start to her day, interrupted by the end-of-school pick-up and a 6pm shutdown to get her son from her sister’s place and her daughter from the crèche, she makes 200 a day—earning an average of 6,800 a month. Yet this amount leaves her with no savings as of now.

Her earnings are bound to go up, Sureshkumar says, as she becomes more familiar with the roads and works for longer hours when her son starts school next year.

With monthly contributions of 3,000 to the SPEED Trust, the vehicle will be Sureshkumar’s in a few years. For now, SPEED supports her by paying for her daughter’s tuition fee, a nominal 150 a year, and babysitting services for 5 a day, besides having bought the auto for 1.5 lakh for her.

“From the beginning, the idea was to have a long-term programme through education for the second generation, with schooling and evening coaching classes, and at the same time offer financial support to their parents," says Malet, who speaks a smattering of Tamil.

Still, only 16 women gear up on the three-wheelers every day from this slum, largely because the group doesn’t have funding to buy more autorickshaws. There are 14 other women autorickshaw drivers in other parts of Chennai who took up this trade after watching women supported by the SPEED Trust. For those in the driver’s seat, it has broken stereotypes and given them a source of sizeable earnings.

“When I first saw women auto drivers in the slum, I had the drive to do it too and finally, here I am," says Sureshkumar, who no longer hesitates to take on passengers heading for unfamiliar destinations. “I am far more confident now and even overtake other vehicles if they try to block my way."