As March 8 is International Women’s Day, Groundviews will be featuring women (and men) who through their work challenge gender stereotypes, in keeping with this year’s theme, “Being bold for change.”

Our first profile is of Lakshi Sajintha Hewa Halpage, the first female expressway bus driver in Sri Lanka.

Lakshi Sajintha Hewa Halpage never thought she would become a bus driver. It remains an unusual career choice, given that it is a predominantly male-dominated profession in Sri Lanka.

Lakshi was not unfamiliar with the mechanics of driving. In fact, she was exposed to it at quite an early age as her father ran a garage and was used to driving several different vehicles, from trishaws to motorcycles. After graduating, Lakshi drove a school transport service for several years, before leaving to help her father with his garage.

However, it was when she decided to take over from her brother, who drove a bus on the Maharagama-Matara expressway, that she became a symbol of something much larger. She became the first female in Sri Lanka to do so.

Her life was not without challenges. Lakshi was driving the Expressway bus on a temporary route permit. The National Transport Commission Chairman promised that he would provide her with a permanent permit, if she purchased her own bus. Lakshi decided to take him up on his promise. However, after purchasing the bus, the Chairman told her that he couldn’t issue her the permit she would need to drive on the expressway.

Lakshi was at her wit’s end. The bus cost a total of Rs. 46 lakhs, or Rs. 4.6 million, and she had leasing payments to make of Rs. 263,000. She had had to sell off portions of her brother’s land in order to make the initial payments.

“I had a huge struggle to figure out how to make these payments. I couldn’t afford it, and I couldn’t run the bus without a permit,” Lakshi said.

Lakshi protested and demanded a permit, as was promised – and also demanded a proper time table.

At that time, many people advised her to simply give up and sell the bus, in order to recoup her losses. But Lakshi didn’t want to give up. It gave her daughter’s great joy that Lakshi had embarked on a journey towards self-sufficiency; the mother of two didn’t want to let her daughter down.

Her family told her not to lose hope. They suggested that she run a staff service. And so Nilani Travels began – a staff service running from Radampola to Colombo. “In those early days, I would have just 6 or 7 passengers. I would drive all the way to Colombo, wait and go back [in the evening],” Lakshi said.

Yet soon the word spread about Lakshi’s service, and more and more people began using it. “Now there are around 40 people who take the service, most of them women. And they enjoy coming on this bus,” Lakshi said.

Lakshi’s run-ins with the Transport Commission did not end, however. She says the Chairman continued to pressure her to stop her staff service as well. In fact, she was arrested last year after confronting him at his office in Narahenpita.

However, she overcame all these obstacles and continues to run her bus. Her days starts as early as 2 or 3 am – the time varies according to the time-table – and she is often in Maharagama just after 6 am. She then drives her bus to a public parking lot just under the Lotus Tower, and remains there until it is time to drive back in the evening. To pass the time, she eats at a nearby canteen and chats with the other drivers – she is by now a familiar figure.

Although Lakshi says she does not blame the Government as a whole, she says the National Transport Commission could have done much more to support her, given that she was the first woman to take up the career. “Unfortunately people often try to set obstacles in the paths of people like us – they don’t allow us to move forward.”

“However, I overcame those obstacles, and I am the stronger for it. I can face any challenge now,” Lakshi said. She attributes the support of her family, who backed her even when luck – and bureaucracy – turned against her. “I have my family behind me. They give me strength.” Her husband’s support too has been vital, particularly as she has two daughters. Yet he has encouraged her to pursue her career. “Every day before I leave for work, he tells me to drive safely,” she says. “He knows that I can handle the challenges.”

“I think I did the country a great service. When someone sees me driving, it could inspire someone else. There is nothing that women can’t do in terms of making a living, in my opinion. People will always face obstacles, no matter what. The key is to face those struggles with courage,” Lakshi says.