New Delhi: Every day 23-year-old Mamta Raghav wakes up at 4.45 am at the start of a hectic day in east Delhi. By 5.30 am she is out of her home and headed for Anand Vihar interstate bus terminus.

Here she boards a bus running on route no. 543, between the terminus and Kapashera, around 30km away in the southwest. At the terminus, Raghav usually runs into Meena Kumari, a 37-year-old mother of two who makes her way from Nand Nagri to board another bus on the same route.

Raghav and Kumari are not daily commuters on route no. 543; they work for the Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), two out of 250 women DTC has hired over the past four years to work as bus conductors.

This month, DTC is expected to advertise for women drivers too. It’s a brave and important step in plans to promote gender equity in Delhi, but Raghav, Kumari and the would-be women drivers need to note the following health warning.

In October, Thomson Reuters Foundation released a survey of the world’s most unsafe public transport systems for women, and New Delhi was ranked fourth—after crime-ridden Bogota, Mexico City and Lima.

The Delhi Human Development Report of 2013 acknowledges that “perceptions about the security of women while travelling by public transport were not positive. Women felt buses were the worst type of public transport in terms of safety…"

The report also cited a 2010 survey conducted by Jagori, a not-for-profit organization that works for women’s rights, in which 80% of the respondents reported being harassed while using public transport.

But it was the December 2012 gang rape and murder of a 23-year-old woman in a moving bus that dramatically highlighted the laxity with which public transport was governed in the city, the setting for growing violence against women in the national capital region.

The recent sexual assault of a woman by a driver in an Uber taxi in Delhi again brought home the insecurity of women commuters. But there are also women who work in this sector in a variety of roles—from petrol station attendants to metro train drivers, cab drivers and parking lot attendants.

And women like Raghav and Kumari.

“I needed to get a job quickly and this opportunity was available. I am a contract worker but since it is a government organization, the security is welcome," said Raghav, who started in the job when she was 19.

Most women transport sector workers interviewed for this story cited economic hardship as a reason for opting for what is a massively male-dominated profession—an unconventional choice for women in most parts of the world.

“Girls and women from underprivileged families should have upward mobility. There should be pride in what they do, their options can’t be limited to being beauticians or tailoring," said Revathi Roy, the pioneer of women-only cab services in India. Roy, who drove a cab in Mumbai, launched a driving school in 2007 specifically aiming to train girls “from BPL (below poverty line) families" as drivers.

Across Delhi these days, women are visible more than ever before on the frontline of businesses linked to transport.

Anjali K., a 21-year-old school dropout, is a parking lot attendant in Connaught Place, a busy shopping district in central Delhi. “I have a bank account and I know that my salary will be deposited without fail on the appointed day," she said. Her timings are 9am to 5pm and, with the exception of women cab drivers, all women are given the morning shift—for reasons of safety and security.

“When we interview a woman, our main concern is how far she lives from the petrol pump," said Dinesh Kumar, manager, Modern Service Station on Janpath, central Delhi. The station currently employs only one woman, Saima, as a pump attendant. DTC also ensures that its women workers are given the morning shift as well as specific routes so as to make the job more convenient for them.

“We give women a choice of shifts; they almost always prefer the morning route," said R.S. Minhas, DTC spokesperson.

But even daytime shifts are no protection against bullying, harassment and unwanted attention.

“People used to laugh when we started four years ago; today also there are those who will giggle when they see a woman conductor," said Reena, who works on route no. JL 23. There are passengers who are unusually aggressive as well as annoying men who insist on taking the seat next to the conductor’s.

“Most of the time I stop them, and they want to know why. I itch to ask them that with so many empty seats, why is it that they want to sit on the one next to me only," Reena, who wanted only her first name to be used, says.

Women are encouraged to report harassment but till date no one has come forward.

There is also the social stigma, with friends and family asking if there is a need to work in a job that is as public as this. “People do ask, there are questions. But for me, after the initial novelty wore off, this became a work place I enjoyed coming to. I have been working on and off at this petrol pump for eight years and today this feels like a second home," said Saima, who identified herself by only her first name. She comes to work with her husband who was supportive of her choice even before they got married.

But he seems to be the exception. Raghav’s family is scouting for a groom for her and she admits that her profession is an impediment to the search. “Families want to know why I do this. There is no prestige and since I am on an annual contract, they ask what is the point of this job," she said. She would prefer to be moved to a desk job, failing which, to be made a permanent employee in the same job.

The pay scale in the sector starts at around 5,000 per month—money which, the women concede, goes a long way in making life easier for them besides giving them a larger say in family decisions and their life choices. For Savita Tomar, 22, signing up for driving classes at Azad Foundation was the best decision of her life. Today she works as a cab driver for the service offered by the foundation, Sakha—for women, by women.

“I have the freedom to take my own decisions at home. Being financially independent brings respect," she said. There are people who find her choice of profession suspect, including male drivers whom she interacts with while on duty. But that doesn’t bother her. Several women-only cab services have been started across the country over the past few years but they remain extremely low profile compared with the leaders in the field.

Brands like Sakha, Viira, Priyadarshini and Angel have come up in cities like Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru but due to their higher rates and less frequent service they don’t register very highly with consumers. There is little financial backing, which means resources are limited. Sakha, for instance, has only 14 cabs and 19 drivers, compared with Meru which has a fleet of more than 6000 cars across the country, according to the company’s website.

But what the companies lack in terms of numbers, they make up in sheer determination. “We want to train women and level the playing field as far as transport is concerned," says Nayantara Janardhan, director of Sakha cabs. They want women to not just be breadwinners but also decision makers.

The safety hazards of running a cab service of women are not lost on any of the players.

From panic buttons in cars to self-defence and dealing with the police, the women are well-equipped and well-trained. Sakha even offers the services of its employees as personal chauffeurs and negotiates a contract for them which includes provisions for how the women will return home in case of a late night.

Rashida, who identified herself by only her first name, a driver with Orix car rentals, was waiting for her client in a South Mumbai parking lot when she spoke with Mint. She has been driving around corporate clients for some years now and says she has never faced an adverse incident. Instead, most men and women leave her car very impressed with her choice. “We are allowed to take the car home during late nights, so the question of being unsafe never arises." She is the sole breadwinner in her family of nine.

“Participation of women as employees in public transport is very much at the nascent stage," said S.P. Singh, senior fellow of the Indian Foundation of Transport Research and Training. The reasons for this are many, and some have to do with gender. “The job of a driver has been steadily losing esteem over the years as the numerous stake holders—right from the government to the manufacturers, insurance companies, oil companies—have only looked upon this sector as a source of revenue."

No effort has gone into devising a training or hiring regime, which in turn has led to a drop in pay scales as well as the sector becoming flooded with untrained or badly trained workers. In order to encourage more women to come into the work force, everything from streamlining the process to obtaining a licence to erecting the right infrastructure needs to be looked at, experts say.

Indeed, the biggest complaint of women who work in transport is the lack of toilets for them.

“We had to educate the women at Sakha about public bathrooms in Metro stations which they could use," says Janardhan, but for the women working for DTC, it is a major concern. “Except for Anand Vihar, few depots have a bathroom for women. It makes matters very difficult for us," says Raghav.

Experts say participation of women in the public and private transport sectors needs to be encouraged as it serves a dual purpose—it breaks a glass ceiling and inspires confidence among women commuters.

“It is fantastic to encourage women to seek employment in this field, it is a step that needs to be taken," says Suneeta Dhar, director of the non-profit Jagori. But she too stresses the importance of skilling. “Redesign public transport for all women, passengers and employees and then things will change."

This is advice the government would do well to heed as nearly all the women interviewed, save the cab drivers, while professing satisfaction admitted they were looking for better options.

“The women will still prefer joining jobs in BPOs (business processing outsourcing) than this," said Revathi Roy, referring to driving.

Experts say the system has everything going for it, from job security to convenient working hours. If those who run the services could only instill a sense of pride while encouraging more women to join the sector, it will go a long way in rectifying the image of public transport in Delhi.