Visiting the Women Empowerment Team: Stories of Courage and Hope

Students from the Indian School of Development Management interning with CORO's partners at Edelgive visited our women empowerment team's community sites in the low-income areas of Chembur-Trombay. This article has been adapted from Nishita Pandey's blog post about her visit. You can read the original post here

Kausar is a resident of Govandi and comes from an orthodox Muslim family where women are married at 13, supposed to be wearing hijabs and don’t receive secondary education. It was the same for her daughter, who after several incidences of domestic violence at her in laws home committed suicide at her maternal home. This shook Kausar to the core.

Anwari Khan doesn’t own a smart phone and has a tiny diary where she has written all the important numbers. Last month she fought with the police to register the FIR of rape of an 8 year old in her area. No one was willing to take the little girl to the hospital and then the court. She took the matters into her own hands because it could’ve been her granddaughter. She said that she constantly receives threats from goons and that her family is always worried about her. However she feels, “Hum nahi karenge toh kaun karega?” (If not me, then who will do it?)

Anjum is working with the women in her community on issues of sanitation where there is one public toilet for a population of more than a 1000. There is a private toilet that charges 5 INR/use. Most people use the dumping ground for defecation. However, there are CCTV camera installed in the area which makes it difficult for the women to use it. If they are caught in the act, a fine of 5000 INR is charged with a week in jail. She has been requesting the BMC for a toilet but they keep fighting back saying these is no space. She is distressed because she doesn’t know where to find space. She questioned me — “Isn’t it the government’s job to do it? And if people are giving up their home to build a toilet shouldn’t they be compensated rightly?” Anjum had dropped out of school after her tenth. She has now started her BA first year course.

The view from the Govandi dumping ground.

Govandi is an area that falls under the M ward in Mumbai which has the lowest human development index of 0.05. It is home to two dumping grounds and 41% of the city’s slum population.

The question on my mind after hearing these stories were — Where do these women find the courage to approach policemen, lawyers and municipality officers and fight for the rights of people? These women have their own stories of tragedy, loss and violence. What is it that drives them towards working for social justice?

Committee of Resource Organizations (CORO) is a non profit working out of Chembur, Mumbai that empowers people to become leaders at the grassroot level in marginalized communities. In partnership with Leaders Quest, they have an 18 month fellowship program which Kausar, Anjum and Anwari have undergone to be able to fight for their rights and work with their communities for complex issues of livelihood, women empowerment, land rights, sanitation, education, domestic violence, eve teasing and corruption.

The fellowship program is a result of over 20 years of experience of CORO of working in the state of Maharashtra in different capacities and multiple issues. In my conversation with these leaders I was enlightened by their approach of resolving these challenging problems of the community at a systemic and cultural level on a daily basis. When they spoke about issues of forced sex in a marriage, eve-teasing of adolescent girls and urinating in public that they deal with, I was left spellbound. They were not angry or pessimistic. They spoke about forgiveness, change taking time, importance of patience and solidarity of sisterhood. In every story that was shared, there was a thread connecting all these women in happiness and in sorrow. In a society where it is claimed that a woman is a woman’s worst enemy, this insight was too beautiful and encouraging. These women haven’t received any formal education but their work is laudatory, their passion for change is incomparable and their journeys are my ray of hope.

No words will be able to do justice to all the emotions I felt during my visit. Have you felt distraught and optimistic at the same time? Or agonized and proud? These women are my heroes. Be it Neha, who looked up CORO on google and ran away from home to escape her early marriage and continue her education; or Anita who left her family, married at her own will and is addressing the problem of domestic violence in her own family and her community; or Mumtaz who defied her mother, a difficult marriage and religion to raise her daughter and live a life of dignity in a highly conservative society.

These incredible women are also educating the men in community and mobilizing them towards social justice. Change is a slow and arduous process and it was refreshing to see that in their assuring eyes. At ISDM two key insights for me have been dealing with uncertainty and asking the right questions. The same was very evidently visible in the way CORO functions as an organization while taking a participatory approach. They are aiming to be enablers of transformation so that people can keep the government accountable, manage the hindrances that can come their way and take matters into their own hands.

It is experiences like this that reaffirm my belief in why I do what I do. My courage, compassion and inspiration is derived from powerful narratives like these; this is where my learning and unlearning happens; this is how I am able to stand in the values of equity, inclusion and oneness for myself and others.

By Nishita Pandey