Grinnell College has awarded the 2022 Grinnell College Innovator for Social Justice Prize of $50,000 to Jai Bharathi, founder and CEO of MOWO Social Initiatives Foundation. Architect and avid motorcyclist-turned-social innovator, Bharathi is a force for women’s empowerment in India. Deep-rooted patriarchal structures there have historically inhibited women’s access to transportation; this lack of access has also dramatically limited their agency in attaining access to education, economic well-being, health care, and social networks. Moving Women (MOWO) disrupts these systems of oppression by empowering women to be agents of their own mobility through two-, three-, or four-wheeler drivers’ training and access to employment.
Vicki Nolton, assistant director for Social Innovation Partnerships and Education, shares the Grinnell Prize Selection Committee’s rationale for choosing MOWO as the 2022 Grinnell Prize winner. “During times when women’s self-actualization is increasingly being challenged, Bharathi and MOWO are forging powerful, creative, and timely strategies to increase women’s agency and liberation. Their approach to women’s empowerment equips other marginalized groups to also rebuild more equitable systems.”
The Grinnell Prize honors individuals who have demonstrated leadership in their fields and who show creativity, commitment, and extraordinary accomplishment in effecting positive social change. Grinnell Prize Week events and the award itself are testament to the College's commitment to empowering students to make positive changes on campus and beyond by leveraging their liberal arts education and applying ideas of purpose, civic responsibility, and social justice.
When Bharathi was a child growing up in the South Indian city of Hyderabad, her father purchased a moped, intending to teach her elder brother how to ride. Fortunately, her father taught her to ride as well, fostering Bharathi’s passion for travel by motorcycle and her courage to defy patriarchal societal norms regarding women and transportation.
After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in architecture, in Hyderabad, India, Bharathi worked for 12 years in the design industry. Her career trajectory changed dramatically after she led a 17,000-km motorcycle expedition from Myanmar to Cambodia, during which she witnessed a group of women bike taxi operators in their 40s and 50s. She realized that training more Indian women to drive would not only increase their freedom and mobility, but also their sense of safety in public spaces, access to education and employment opportunities, and power to break the patriarchal barriers that limit their potential. Thus, in 2019, MOWO Social Initiatives Foundation was born.
MOWO has successfully advocated for women’s mobility through their work for the last 3 years. One of their major successes is being assigned as technical partners to State Govt of Telangana (Birth State of MOWO) in building India’s first ever motor training center exclusive for women. This is a great step towards institutionalizing mobility as a skill for women, paving a path for many trained women drivers becoming a part of future of mobility. Focusing on electric vehicles for trainings conducted by women instructors further reduces the barriers of learning and prepares them to be industry ready.
Indian women’s newfound mobility and ownership of the transportation system allows them to start and sustain their own economic enterprises as driving teachers in the program, taxi drivers, and salespeople; this economic agency also allows them to pay off their loans. This model helps to ensure that the vehicles stay in the woman’s hands and are not taken over by the men in her life; moreover, they are able to attain personal and social independence.
Bharathi says, "Roads and transport have been catalysts that have led us to the globalized world we live in. However, through a historical lens, we see that women have been deprived of and discouraged from taking up driving opportunities.” The reasons for this situation, she explains, include the deep-set patriarchy that makes men feel entitled to take the driver’s seat and the lack of safety in mobility. “Despite making immense progress, India has been unable to harness the true potential of its female population in the thriving mobility economy,” Bharathi says. “MOWO aims to work towards making our roads an equal space for women.”