When Selvi was 14, she was married off to an abusive husband who forced her into prostitution.
She escaped and went on to become one of India’s first female taxi drivers. And this journey has become the subject of a documentary film, “Driving With Selvi”, which aims to inspire women to break out of traditional roles.
“Many girls in small villages or marginalised communities in India never learn to dream,” filmmaker Elisa Paloschi said.
“I think that Selvi’s story shows that you can dream and will inspire people to think about their future,” Elisa said.
India is home to a third of the world’s child brides, and around 50 per cent of India’s women were married before turning 18, according the UN children’s agency.
Early marriage makes it more likely that girls will drop out of school, and campaigners say it also increases the risks of exploitation, sexual violence, domestic abuse and death in childbirth.
Selvi explains how her violent marriage pushed her towards suicide.
“My life was over. I thought it was better to kill myself than to stay. But then I realised that if I were dead I wouldn’t be able to prove myself. That’s why I ran away,” she said.
Selvi found her way to a girls’ shelter in the southwestern city of Mysuru, where she learned how to drive.
A few years later, as she was about to set up what has been described as India’s first female taxi company, she met Paloschi who was fascinated by her charisma.
“You can tell she has some greatness in her,” the filmmaker said.
Eleven years in the making, “Driving With Selvi” opened in London on Friday and is to premier on US television to mark the International Day of The Girl Child on Tuesday.
The documentary has won praise from human rights activists.
“It tells so powerfully that when these girls are given the chance to be empowered, are given skills, care and support, they can change their circumstances and that’s incredibly inspiring to see,” UNICEF UK’s deputy executive director, Lily Caprani, told filmgoers after a screening in London on Friday.
Paloschi is now planning to embark with Selvi on a bus tour of southern India to bring the movie to small communities as part of a campaign called “Save Her A Seat” that aims to challenge the marginalisation of women.
Women are among the most excluded groups in India, with almost 43 per cent of working-age women confined to domestic work, according to a report published in March.
“This film has such an incredible power to create social change and I think that Selvi is a great spokesperson for that,” Paloschi said.
– The Thomson Reuters Foundation