Life is tough for everyone in the slums but the burden on women is greater, given the precarious nature of housing and lack of basic infrastructure for water, sanitation, and fuel. Here, they tell their stories.
Text by Arjun Chavah
Photos by Akash Basumatari
I was born and brought up in a Disneyland in Hyderabad, or at least 25 years ago it felt like Disneyland to us. We would play kabaddi and football in the maidan, go fishing and swimming in the lake, and dance to the beat of the dholak on Ganesh Chaturthi every year. This Disneyland happens to be a slum called Errakunta.
When I was about 13-years old, I realized that all was not right with this Disneyland. This realization struck one day when I was playing cricket with my friends. Someone screamed, and when we got there we saw that a young woman, about 23-years old, had immolated herself as her three-year old baby lay crying besides her. When she died a week later, the police arrested her husband. He went to jail for torturing and mentally harassing her but no one seemed to know the whole story. As I listened to people speculating about the tragic event, I realized that the lives of the women in my slum basti were filled with violence and stress.
I now live in Mumbai and when I speak to women in the slums here, I realize things are not very different for them even today. Women living in the slums of M-Ward – the city’s poorest and most disadvantaged ward in terms of infrastructure and services – are plagued not just by everyday problems relating to housing, sanitation and water, but are also more vulnerable to violence and oppression. Balancing responsibilities at home and outside becomes especially difficult for them, and the lack of basic public amenities and infrastructure makes completing everyday tasks a painful and exacting struggle. Thirty-year old Shibli Ansari works as a domestic help and also takes care of her two children. She gestures towards the hardships in her slum as she tells me, “Look, we are living in these slums with no light, water, or medical facilities. We take hours and hours to cook one meal on the chulha by blowing and blowing the fire, which fills the room with smoke.”
I realize that even when these women are earning as much as their husbands, their socio-economic position is lower within their families. Their lack of access to education is also a hindrance. Shibli earns Rs 3000 a month and her cobbler husband earns an average of Rs 3500-4000 per month. Her job is more secure than his, which she attests to when she says, “My employers are very understanding. They pay me on time each month and never threaten me with pay cuts. They don’t ask me to stay back and do extra work as they know I have to return to my family in the evening.” But she has only studied up to class nine and her education was discontinued when her parents decided it was an unnecessary expenditure. As I talk to her, I wonder – if she had continued with her education, where would she have been today?
Shibli lives in the Baiganwadi slum, where there is only one pipe for drinking water. The women all line up every morning to get water from this pipe. Shibli fetches water for her family every morning in one matka and has to make multiple ten-minute trips to the pipe. She explains how important this chore is, “When I wake up every morning, my first thought is that I must get enough water so I can cook for my family.” The older women find these repeated trips very demanding. Middle-aged Vimal Gaikwad told me, “I end up walking 3-4 kilometers to and fro to get enough water for the day, and my legs and back ache.” According to the Mumbai Human Development Report 2009 published by the state government, Mumbaikars on average get 200 litres per capita per day, while slum residents get only 90 litres.
The defunct sanitation system in slums places additional burdens on the women. Vimal told me, “The drainage system is a joke. When the monsoons come, the gutters overflow with rainwater mixed with putrid garbage.” When this water becomes a breeding ground for mosquitoes and dengue attacks paralyze the slum, the onus of taking care of the sick inevitably falls on the women. Shibli tells me, “The municipality doesn’t allow us to build our own toilets here, because there is no drainage line in the slum.” Women have to pay Rs 3 every time they use the government toilet, which is usually so dirty that fungus grows on the floor. While trying to access these public toilets, women must also guard against being abused, harassed, stalked, and physically assaulted. “Going there at night is particularly unsafe as there is the additional threat of drunk men who sexually harass us on the way to and from the toilets,” Shibli says.
The women from these slums were unanimous in their demand for the creation of adequate infrastructure. As for a change in mindsets, they are already teaching their sons to stay away from violence, alcoholism and so on. They hope that this will improve the lot of the younger women, who will not have to suffer like they did.
Cover photo by Arjun Chavah