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07 Feb
  • By Enrica Miceli

Empowering women in Mumbai’s slums

Sensational and unforgettable. These two words immediately come to my mind when I think of India. Meeting a foreign culture and country for the first time, one never feels completely ready.

When you first arrive in Mumbai, things could not appear more complicated and confusing: a kaleidoscope of colours, aromas, amazing landscapes, the home to people from all over the country, with nearly 21 million of residents, and the same number of vehicles! The city has gorgeous skyscrapers towering the overcrowded slums. Despite India’s economic growth, the gap between rich and poor has not been bridged.

For women too, the situation is not easy to explain. Today India offers a lot of opportunities to women in terms of education, access to information, jobs, political participation. However, especially in the rural and poorer areas, they are still suffering discriminations and exclusions. During my volunteering experience, I have been working in middle-class urban areas, slums, and rural/tribal villages. A woman’s fate changes completely according to her birthplace.

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 (Lecture taking place in Mumbai)

In some backwards areas, because of the male dominant society, Indian women suffer immensely. They are responsible for bearing children, yet they are malnourished and in poor health. Women are also overworked in the fields, and in domestic work. Most Indian women are uneducated, and although according to the country’s Constitution women have equal status to men, in some areas they are powerless and mistreated inside and outside their home.

“Independence does not suit women”

This was one of the first sentences I heard as I reached India, just arrived in Mumbai as a volunteer for the civil service. I left Italy with the best intentions and even greater expectations, but that sentence, in just a few seconds, apparently wiped them all out. My sense of bewilderment increased because the person who uttered such a sentence was a woman, who supposedly should be my ally. If women themselves do not believe in our enterprise, does it make sense at all? What is then the significance of my project?

My task for the Italian Ngo IBO (working in the field of international cooperation promoting volunteering activities both in Italy and worldwide) and the Navjeet Community Health Center (NCHC) was to carry on the triennial project Slum Women Empowerment, funded since 2010 by the Italian Bishops’ Conference. The project aimed at fighting poverty in the Mumbai’s slums through women’s promotion and empowerment inside their own families and communities.  The NCHC is the outreach of the Holy Family Hospital in Bandra (a suburb of Mumbai), with a broad agenda to revitalise Indian slum communities with Health, Education and Development Facilities.

I decided to express my doubts to social workers in charge of our project’s activities. Their answer was clear and enlightening:

“when we organise seminars and training for the slums’ women, we do not expect immediate understanding. On the contrary, we assume that it will not be an easy task. However, this is not a sufficient reason not to try: so, let’s try it!”.

The project intended to help women to become the protagonists of their own life, by improving their socio-economic conditions and their health, creating self-help groups, where women could exchange their mutual experiences and organise better access to microfinance.

Mumbai women took part also in our seminars against domestic violence, a spreading phenomenon in India hidden behind homes’ walls. Physical and psychological abuses torment women to the point that victims do not even recognise violence as such, masked by the unjust prejudice subjugating women to men for their whole life: their fathers, their husbands, and finally their male children.

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(Mumbai women taking part in the seminar)

I still remember once I was accompanying two social workers, the workshop expert, and a small group of women, when we reached on time the new fishermen district of Khard Danda – inside the Khar suburb of Mumbai – full of enthusiasm. Suddenly, we surprisingly discovered that the room devoted to our workshop was filled with a noisy group of local men, who kept drinking, playing, and making fun of us, in spite of our legitimate claims to get our room back, and even ordering us to go back home kneading chapati. Local women, who had left children, mothers in law, housework, and dinner preparations to join us and participate in the meeting, lost the motivation that we had hardly conquered in them. Fortunately, some of the women managed to find the key of an alternative empty space (once used for a nearby maternal school) where we could use desks, a chair and an electric plug for our laptop to project a documentary movie about women who courageously reported the abuses and the violence they suffered.

Indian women, especially those from the slums areas, are more active, concerned and aware about their rights, skills and capacities than my own peers in Italy. They are awake, moving fast. When the Navjeet social workers and I planned to organise meetings for women regarding domestic violence and women’s rights, a great number of women were willing to join our initiative. They had to justify their absence from home and to explain their respective husbands and mothers-in-law why our meetings were so important for them.

The social workers’ and community animators’ daily work in the slums –  visiting families, talking with both women and men, trying to share information and reporting all the dangerous cases to the authorities’ attention – explains the women mobilisation. It may take a while for Indian women to achieve equal status in the minds of Indian men, but every little progress reached with the Navjeet staff impressed me positively. We carried out successfully all the planned workshops and seminars. They included: medium-level English and Marathi literacy classes, vocational training for young girls (a small tailoring unit of around 8-9 women), awareness campaigns, home-visits and a weekly clinic for women and their children, where the most disadvantaged families could find free health assistance. Our strong motivation and deep commitment produced such a success, despite social restrictions, religious constraints, and cultural prejudices.

That sentence I heard at my arrival in Mumbai did initially wipe out my expectations, but the spontaneous and decisive mobilisation, as well as the strong commitment that Indian women showed, supporting all the activities and initiatives organised for them, made me aware that independence does suit women and it is definitely worth trying it.

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img_img_1474100110318_1Enrica Miceli is the Secretary General of Mediterranean Perspectives and currently in charge of the Secretariat of the Italian Network for the Euro-Mediterranean Dialogue RIDE. She graduated in International Relations at the University of Bologna, followed by a specialization in Development Cooperation Studies. After an internship at the Italian Consulate in Jerusalem in 2010, she moved to India where she served as a volunteer for around three years. She firstly worked in Mumbai for a women’s empowerment project devoted to support  women from the peri-urban slum’s areas and secondly in Kerala (south India), within the framework of the European  Voluntary Service, in a foundling home for children and women in need. She was awarded International Volunteer 2015 for her commitment and supportive work in Kerala.