Ladies in the slow lane – The Edge Review

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YANGON – It was hot Tuesday evening just before the start of the Myanmar’s rainy season, and Ni Ni Shein sat in her car, the engine running, next to Junction Mawtin, a shopping mall just a few minutes’ walk from the city’s Chinatown.

“Just to take a minute’s rest,” explained the 60-year-old mother of three, who had been cruising Yangon’s streets, in search of fares, since noon.

Ni Ni Shein first got behind the wheel of one of the city’s taxis a decade ago. At the time, her husband had just retired and her children were reaching adulthood, so the full-time housewife decided to set out on a new, and atypical, career as a taxi driver.

According to Yangon City Development Committee (YCDC), there are over 26000 taxis in the commercial capital, but only 5 of those are driven by women.

“We have around 90 drivers, but we don’t have any lady drivers,” said Kyaw Lin, a director at Golden Swallow, a taxi firm based near Yangon’s international airport.

Asked if he would ever consider hiring a woman for the job, Kyaw Lin was noncommittal.

“Maybe this is not popular in Myanmar,” he said, adding that it might be a problem for a woman to drive at night. “Some men are drinking,” he said, tailing off. The implication being that this explanation, curt and unfinished, didn’t need any elaboration.

Barbara Myint Sein, the chief operations officer at Yangon’s Parkroyal Hotel, said the hotel previously employed two female drivers, both of whom have moved on. “One left because she got a better salary to work as a secretary and driver,” she said.

Whatever the reasons for their scarcity, Myanmar is hardly alone in having few female taxi drivers. According to the International Women’s Day website, only 1.1 percent of the taxi drivers in New York City are women, with a similar figure for Toronto. In France, by contrast, women make up a relatively high 9 percent of the taxi-driving workforce.

Safety is a lynchpin issue for many women who might consider driving a cab for a living – and for passengers, with specialised taxi firms in western cities offering the reassurance of female-only drivers for female customers. For Nyein Shin, another of the count-on-one-hand female cabbies in Yangon, getting the job done before dark cuts out the danger.

“I work 9 to 5 most days,” she said, agreeing with Kyaw Lin’s take that working after dark verges on taboo, but arguing that there was no reason a woman couldn’t drive during the day.

Nyein Shein previously worked in real estate. Unlike Ni Ni Shein, she’s new to the cabbie trade, and one month into it, her take was hat the work is fun, but sometimes trying.

Her main concern is Yangon’s traffic, which is getting heavier by the day. According to figures released by the Ministry of Transport, Myanmar had a total of 400,000 registered cars and trucks last year, up from 260,000 in mid-2012.

Together with Yangon’s maniacal bus drivers, who careen through crowded streets as if seeking pedestrians to mill into, the sheer volume of traffic on Yangon’s roads can be stressful even for the most experienced driver.

But despite the heavy traffic, both women say that they make a living. Nyein Shin said she gets, on average, between 10 to 15 passengers per day – numbers she said keeps her busy, though a lot of time is lost in Yangon’s glacial downtown traffic.

Ni Ni Shein said she takes in around 30000 kyat (US$30) per day in fares. “I only spend around 3000 ($3) a day on gas, so it is a good job,” she said, while leaning over the steering wheel – forehead almost to the windshield, peering left while stalled at a traffic light that was the sole source of illumination on the nighttime street.

And despite being 60 years old. she doesn’t want to give up a job that has served her well these past 10 years. “No plan to stop. I will run, run all the time,” she said.

Unlike Nyein Shin, the more experienced Ni Ni Shein is unperturbed by driving Yangon’s usually quiet nighttime streets.And while both women mostly stick to the city’s busy downtown core—the area centered around Sule Pagoda, from Chinatown to Botahtaung Township—Ni Ni Shein said she does the occasional airport run.

Most drivers charge 7,000 or 8,000 kyat for the trip, some of whom tack on an extra 1-2,000 kyat for running the air-conditioning, even during Yangon’s high 30’s hot season, which runs from February to May.

Ni Ni Shein said her standard for the same route is 5,000 kyat, dismissing tales of taxi rip-ofs with an indignant groan. “Oh, some drivers charge too expensive for foreigners.”

Pulling up, she reached into her handbag, proferring a business card. “Next time you fly, you call me,” she said, before winding up the driver’s side window, and heading, she said, for home.

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