In India, as in many areas of the world, an absolute lack of resources only tells half the story. Resources - whether they be cash, reproductive rights, access to education, or even food - are often distributed unequally across a number of power dynamics: race, language, national origin, age, and especially gender.
Through the course of our work in the slum, we have been confronted with a number of manifestations of gender inequality - girls being pulled out of school and pressured into marriage as young as 12, women suffering domestic violence, and females of all ages being allotted less food from the family pot. On top of these daily injustices, women shoulder a disproportionate proportion of the household burden, including raising children, preparing meals and washing clothing, while often working long hours in the market to provide half (or more) of the family income.
Above and beyond the hard work of daily subsistence, it is incredibly inspiring to see these same women and girls coming forward individually and in groups to educate themselves and improve their communities. AIC currently hosts and supports three bachat gats, or self-help groups, which are entirely managed by and for the women in the communities in which we work, and we run twice-weekly women's literacy classes for women and older girls who want to learn to read and write in Marathi.
Self-help and Microfinance
The three bachat gats which operate out of our centre, begun in March 2008, have emerged as the single most effective community organizing tool at our disposal. The bachat gats serve first and foremost as microfinance organizations: women deposit Rs. 100 (about $2) per month and the group as a whole decides on the terms and conditions of small loans to members. Additionally, the women attend lectures, health camps and participate in community actions to improve their own lives and the life of their community. For example, in the first six months of their existence, the bachat gats have: heard a lecture by the first lawyer in India to successfully prosecute a case of domestic violence; spread the word for and attended an eye screening camp; worked with government agencies and outside NGOs to demand the proper provision of rations; and learned the symptoms of tuberculosis and referred suspected cases to nearby hospitals for free treatment.
The women's bachat gats have been such a success that there is now significant demand for similar groups for men and teenage boys from the same community, as well as a constant stream of women coming from around Yerwada interested in joining or starting their own group. In 2009, we expect the role of these groups in AIC's programs to grow, especially with the introduction of a number of community-led health projects designed to address the high prevalence of maternal and childhood anemia among the slum communities.
Since the inauguration of AIC's expanded outreach programs in the fall of 2007, women's literacy courses have been explicitly and constantly demanded by women of all ages who lacked the opportunity to attend school during their childhood. Literacy courses meet in small groups twice weekly over the course of 6-8 months, and at the end of the course, women are able to write their names, read basic passages and write simple sentences. The ability to write one's name and thoughts is crucial to self-reliance and self-confidence. Since learning to write, these women can sign their names to official documents, allowing them access to development programs from which they were previously barred; they can lodge written complaints with government offices and ration stores, giving them a legal voice where they were once denied one; and they can help their children with their schoolwork, further reinforcing a culture of education and literacy where previously school attendance was rare and exceptional.
Through every aspect of our work, we strive to impart value of equality and a deep appreciation for education. We routinely refuse to support the education of boys unless their sisters are also given the opportunity to attend school. While we certainly do not want to discourage boys from attending school, we continue to use this tactic because it works: we have yet to encounter a family who has refused to allow us to enroll their girls in school.
As the current class of girls moves through school, we see them achieving academically and socially in ways that were previously imagined impossible. Their families, who were at first reluctant or opposed to their education, now enthusiastically support their schooling and have increased demands for educational opportunities. It is our hope that these girls will grow up to be leaders in their communities, and that they and their daughters will grow up to effect the change that we are all striving for.