During the last stage of Miss Peru in November 2017, the models came forward to introduce themselves, as is usual in beauty pageants. But rather than call out their body measurements, instead they listed brutal statistics about violence against women. “My measurements are: 2,202 cases of femicide reported in the last nine years in my country,” said the first contestant.
Latin America has an appalling record for gender violence. Many women are speaking out and a few are setting up businesses to help fight it. Among them is Gabriela Corrêa, chief executive of LadyDriver, a Brazilian car-hailing app that only accepts female passengers and hires female drivers. “When I first mentioned this idea, people laughed in my face, they said it would not work,” she says. “Now, even men acknowledge there is need for it.”
In 2016, Ms Corrêa was harassed in São Paulo by a driver from an established taxi-hailing app. He had already made a stream of inappropriate comments by the time they arrived at Ms Corrêa’s destination, a bar in the city, when he said: “I will wait for you outside, because you will be drunk later and I will take advantage of you.”
This is a megalopolis where, according to the UN, a woman is abused every 15 seconds. Ms Corrêa says: “After that I thought, to feel safe, I only want to ride with a woman.” She unveiled LadyDriver on International Women’s Day in March 2017, with the tagline: “sisterhood, empowerment, equality”.
The all-female ride-hailing app is not unique: California’s See Jane Go, for example, launched in 2016. But the concept has found a ready market in Brazil, where the number of reported rapes rose 3.5 per cent to almost 49,500 between 2015 and 2016, according to the Fórum Brasileiro de Segurança Pública, a think-tank. And a survey last month by pollster Datafolha indicated that 42 per cent of women interviewed have suffered sexual harassment — with almost a quarter happening on public transport.
The number of female drivers so far recruited to São Paulo ride-hailing app LadyDriver
Ms Corrêa, 35, who studied business administration and worked on the management team of the construction works for the Rio Olympic Games, has already recruited more than 11,000 female drivers. There have been 120,000 app downloads in São Paulo, and it will soon start operations in Rio de Janeiro. “If you think that roughly 50 per cent of Brazil’s population is female, I am working with 50 per cent of the population,” she says. “Brazil’s potential is gigantic.”
Car-booking apps are booming in Brazil. This is Uber’s second-largest market outside the US, with 500,000 drivers and 17m users. São Paulo residents take more Uber trips every day than those in New York. Local start-up 99, with 14m users and 300,000 drivers, has just been acquired by Chinese car-booking app Didi Chuxing in a takeover valuing the company at a reported $1bn.
As Brazil emerges from a brutal recession, car-hailing apps have become a means to survive double-digit unemployment in the country. LadyDriver offers a range of perks including bonuses, paid tolls, and lower fees compared with competitors, so driving exclusively for her company could yield drivers some R$7,000 a month ($2,160) says Ms Corrêa.
“That is higher than some [of the drivers’] male partners make driving for other apps, and we are safer,” says Mirela Juns, a former Uber driver who was harassed by a passenger earlier this year and who now drives exclusively for LadyDriver, which also allows drivers to build their own loyal clientele. “This app generates entrepreneurs.”
LadyDriver was set up with an initial family investment of $150,000 followed by $300,000 from Brazilian and Portuguese angel investors. It is still small, but safety concerns are boosting the popularity of female-focused apps. There is now another all-female service in Brazil, FemiTaxi.
Local giant 99 was the first service in Brazil to launch a female-only option for passengers. The move followed a survey of 36,000 passengers, male and female, in which 70 per cent said they would rather travel with female drivers.
“Now women are having the courage to speak up,” says Ms Corrêa, speaking as some two dozen new recruits gathered in a conference room in the company offices in São Paulo for a training session. “Before, there was rape, harassment, but everyone kept quiet because they were afraid of being judged.”
Mr Corrêa says the car-booking apps market generates some R$7.4bn a year in São Paulo alone: “We believe that 15 per cent of that can go to rides on women-exclusive apps.” She is seeking funds to move into other Latin American markets, like Peru, Argentina and Mexico, and expand further in Brazil.
“Both passengers and drivers feel safer if the app connects them to a person of the same gender, so the demand for this app is potentially high,” explains Paulo Furquim, professor at São Paulo’s Insper business school. He warns, though, of competition from large apps.
Some Brazilian politicians are still seeking to regulate car-booking apps by classing them as public transportation. But Mr Furquim believes that if LadyDriver can “maintain its operations for at least a year, even in a single city, investing in advertising and PR, it is viable because there is a clear demand for the service”.
In a country of 208m people with a slightly higher female population, Ms Corrêa’s goal is to top 1m drivers by 2020. “When I started the company, people warned me not to do it, that I would be judged,” she says. She carried on regardless. “I’m creating something to solve a problem I had, to prevent that from happening to other women.”
The writer is FT Brazil correspondent