Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

"Voices of Change": Surviving in the Shadows Part II

January 20, 2012

Editor's Note: Over the next few days, in our "Voices of Change": A Trip Through Dharavi blog series, we'll introduce you to one of the most unique living settlements in the world: Dharavi. Home to almost one million people, living in one square mile in Mumbai, India, Dharavi is a slum challenged by immense problems. But it is also home to hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children filled with hope and strength. In November 2011, a group of 11 "Young Global Leaders" had the chance to visit Dharavi with Melanie Walker, Deputy Director for Global Development Special Initiatives at the foundation. And please share your comments, thoughts and experiences with us!

Imagine coming to a new city with your family in hopes for a better life. You have no money but you heard about the opportunities in the burgeoning metropolis of Mumbai—the Gateway to India. You step foot into this once ancient fishing village and your dreams are soon drowned out by the flood of daily obligations.

With rents rivaling Manhattan, the only living arrangement your family can afford is in the slum—a makeshift informal community. Your husband finds odd jobs, first sorting garbage and then selling second-hand items. Since it’s not enough to put food on the table, he pushes you to find work. Although you are smart, you soon learn that your options are limited. After all, you’re a woman in a still male-dominated caste-oriented culture. Your husband threatens to beat you if you don’t bring in money so you tell your family you’re now a housemaid. You leave for work in your homemade sari. Instead of cleaning homes though, you offer services of another kind.

“Home-based sex workers provide paid sexual services and hide their profession from their families.”

You have become a home-based sex worker selling the one thing that the streets find valuable—your body. As opposed to the bar girls, you provide paid sexual services at lodges, or any location where you are taken by clients. You operate as part of a network and are managed by a pimp. Your family doesn’t know. The shame eats at you but you do what you can to take care of your children. Your husband doesn’t use a condom and neither do your regular partners. Every day you walk in fear of being discovered. Every night you lie in fear of catching disease. This is the reality of thousands of women in the slums of Mumbai.

I was continuing my journey to capture the voices of the poor; when I found out that my assignment was to visit the sex workers in the Dharavi slums, I had to consciously tell myself to suspend judgment. I had some vague image of talking with a “lady of the night,” overly made-up with tight clothing and stilettos—only Indian-style. What I found was something entirely unexpected.

I visited one sex worker in her home. To enter, I had to climb up a steep ladder. I couldn’t imagine doing that every day with packages and my children in tow. The entire home was half the size of my hotel room, yet it was very neat and cozy. She offered me water as she stirred something on the stove. A Bollywood video was pulsating on her TV—the one major luxury she had. I sat on her twin-sized bed that also served as a sofa. Another woman sat on the floor with an infant. When I asked my host about her major challenges, she replied, “I don’t see challenges.” I asked about what keeps her up at night. “I think about what will happen to my children when I am gone,“ she shared.

As we were navigating the tight passageways, we came upon a group of beautiful women sitting in a circle. It could have been an afternoon book club. Instead, it was a self-help group, or Aastha Gat. The women meet monthly for two hours to discuss issues, support each other, and make loans. They take meticulous minutes. Each woman pays in 100 rupees per month. If she has to take out a loan, she knows there will be two percent interest. This support and savings circle leads to a greater sense of unity and enables the sharing of information. I asked one woman what she has used a loan for and she replied, “To buy medicine for my sick brother and to pay school fees for my daughter.”

Community members come together to form self-help groups, whose leaders form Community Based Organizations, which in turn report to a Federation. Aastha Parivaar is one of India’s largest federations of women, men, and transgenders in sex work spreading across the Mumbai and Thane districts of Maharashtra State. It provides a platform to address their common needs such as health, human rights, crisis intervention, legal literacy, literacy, and support to their children for a sustainable impact. The Aastha Enterprises teaches business skills and helps the women generate income as an alternative to sex work. Some activities include selling imitation jewelry, chocolates, and powder compacts.

Aastha Parivaar works with the Society for Human and Environment Development (SHED), a Mumbai-based NGO established in 1983 to promote welfare and improve the conditions of those living in the urban slums and tribal area. It provides nutrition for children, vocational training, health education, and maternal and child healthcare. It has been successful at reducing HIV/STIs among home-based sex workers. Together, these organizations and this networked structure provide a pathway to dignity and leadership, enabling women to be engines of community empowerment. The women find a voice and learn organizing skills. They shed the shame of their hidden life and see they are not alone.

With every conversation, any judgment that may have been lingering faded away. These women exhibited a culture of daily savings and organizational discipline lacking in the U.S. and in other more “developed” nations. They retained a sense of optimism despite huge obstacles. They were focused on what was most important: caring for their families. Instead of waiting for a handout, they were pulling each other up—a lesson we should all heed in these trying times.

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