The Women Transforming the Slums of Thane, India

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Poonam Nair (pictured) is a social worker with Saahasee, one of TEAR’s Indian partners. She works in the slums of Thane, on the outskirts of Mumbai, with women’s Self-Help Groups. Through her personal journey, she shares her insight into what happens when women are encouraged to gather, learn their rights, advocate to change their circumstances, and empowered to contribute to improving their communities.

My Background

I’m from a very simple background. When I was ten, I lost my mother. I then had to take the responsibility for my younger brother, who was 6 at that time. Being raised by my Dad, I had to just grow up, on my own or by simple life observation, too fast. I had no real experience of a common family life, except seeing our neighbours and their children grow. 

The Women Transforming the Slums of Thane, India

Poonam Nair is a social worker with Saahasee, one of TEAR’s Indian partners.

I had not much interaction with women. Somehow I finished my schooling in a government school and later through distance education. I often reflect now that there was a constant hidden power that was always there which has saved me, supported me and protected me a number of times. I now know that this was God. There was also a steady dream I was carrying in me that I needed to do something different, and for the good of the unfortunate. 

Entering Community Work

In June 2003, I heard of an opening to work at Saahasee. I was selected and I moved from Delhi to Mumbai. From that day, my life has truly changed. The opportunity to work with women (thousands of them!) became my passion and extended to become my new family.  

I have worked intensely with these women to find solutions to their problems. It’s made me a stronger and a more committed person. My mentor, Eddie Mall, has taught me the meaning of trusting others and a passion for the poor. I found my God and redeemer, my Lord Jesus Christ. This life is the gift of the Lord for His service. 

I believe that I am called and chosen for this task. Women are a beautiful and blessed creation but still remain very vulnerable and outcast in all manners. In India, women are always treated as if they have a “non-existing identity”. It doesn’t make much difference if a woman is educated, working, supporting the household, and fulfilling all requirements of her family. If the food is not good, if children do not perform well at school, if she only has girl children, if the electricity bill is higher (of all strange things!), she is the one to blame for all the wrong that is happening around her. In our slums, the women are the ones who struggle the whole day to arrange even 5 litres of water for their family and wait in all weathers, standing outside the door in the early morning for a water tanker. Women face discrimination in all aspects of life – whether it is in a hospital, school, community, or even in their own family. Women are never allowed to raise their voices when in pain or in bad health. From childhood, it is almost in their DNA that their husband’s needs come first. 

The Women of Saahasee

Saahasee allows women to believe that a change is possible and that women are equals. They do have a right to live, to realise dreams, make informed choices and shape the lives of their families, communities and their nation. 

Through Saahasee, I spend time with these marginalised women, who are so skillful. I see their bright eyes, which twinkle in all their expressions, their beautiful smiles which want to rise to the challenges of the world. Together, they are restless to fly higher and higher.  

For me it's always delightful (magnificent!), and a time full of hope to see these women, who carry so much pain, agony, so many scratches on their body, but still are so hopeful and positive, willing to learn more and more. Their hope, their trust in Saahasee, its commitment to their empowerment inspires me again and again to do even more for those most vulnerable, but beautiful creation of our God.

What Women Want

Saahasee helps women learn their human and constitutional rights. To access these rights they have to engage with local officials, government, political leaders, police, legal services, housing and banking institutions - just to get basic services like water, sanitation, safety, education, and employment. Through Saahasee, the women are organised in Self-Help Groups (SHGs) which collectively form Federations. They are a legal entity – one with a large membership and financial base. 

Having learnt about their rights, the women want to see the policies, laws and systems which protect women’s rights enforced. There is the Domestic Violence Act, recognition of marital rape, the Child Abuse Act, the Nirbhaya Act (recognizing sexual crimes). They want to access the government schemes that will improve their families and communities. 

Women want their place in the home, in the workforce, in society acknowledged as contributors and decision-makers. They want to be seen as equally important pillars of the family. They want equality and dignity. They want the equal right to laugh, sing, dance, choose and live life on their own choices. 

Good changes are in progress now – women are becoming more organized, and there are more leaders who are vocal and courageous about marital rights, domestic violence and legal rights. Women are now openly sharing their pain and wounds with others and looking to change past traditional mindsets. 

Change is slow but it’s making a great impact in the new generation. Younger people are coming to take women’s rights very seriously and are willing to be part of this massive change. New laws are in women's favour – currently they are on paper only, but soon they will be enforced.


A Win for the Women

One of Saahasee’s biggest advocacy success stories is quite literally about saving the slum. The area of Thane, where one of the projects is based, is zoned as “forest land” but was developed with unofficial housing (a slum) more than thirty years ago. 

A few years back, the local government posted notices for residents to vacate.  Panic set in. The slum was to be demolished! 

Saahasee’s SHG members gathered the next day. On behalf of the slum, they decided to take the case on themselves. Twenty-five Federation leaders formed the “Fact-Finding Committee on Demolition”, and set out a strategy.  They arranged to meet with officials and, with great difficulty, secured meetings with relevant municipal authorities, even though such meetings are almost impossible, and even more so for women. 

The Women Transforming the Slums of Thane, India

The women of Saahasee helped all households gather and deposit their legal documents – a considerable task – and saved the slum.

They soon discovered that the government were only going to demolish those dwellings which had been built after the year 2000. If a family could deposit the required documents proving their presence in the household since that time, their house would be spared. The committee started a drive to inform every household about these new facts. They discovered that 70% of the slum could now be saved. One thing was in their favour: the slum population is an important “vote bank” for the political parties, and so all of the residents hold official ID cards. These legal documents track their place of residence.

The women of Saahasee helped all households gather and deposit their legal documents – a considerable task – and saved the slum.

Since then, the women have been more confident. “The task which was impossible to even think about... became very easy when these women members stand as one,” says Poonam Nair. Two other changes have occurred: their husbands are more supportive of their involvement with Saahasee, and the government officials are more comfortable sharing information with women.

Now, they just have to find solutions to the other problems – water, sanitation, health and safety. By standing together they know they can handle any crisis. 

Buy the gift of a Women's Community Group and support amazing projects like this one, which help women access their rights and empower them to find a voice in their community!  www.usefulgifts.org/collections/gifts-which-support-community/products/womens-community-group

Please pray for Saahasee

  • Poonam asks for prayer: “God keep me humble and grounded and God always use me as an instrument for His noble work. I would always look for purpose in life. That God would reveal to me and help me understand His kind will.”
  • For wisdom for the women of Saahasee – the group and Federation leaders, the families they represent, and for the staff. 
  • That those who support Saahasee will multiply – that there will be steady ongoing income, inspired vision and leadership.

 

Poonam Nair is a social worker with Saahasee, a TEAR partner in India.

Australian aid

This project has received funding from the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), responsible for Australia's overseas aid program.

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