My name is Zarin Ansari. I have been living in Ambujwadi for the past 21 years. Ambujwadi is a basti (slum) in the western suburb of Malwani in Mumbai, inhabited since 1995. There are people from different regions, religious and caste backgrounds in our community. There are also those belonging to the tribal community. The land of Ambujwadi is distributed into two parts—one area has been declared a resettled and rehabilitated (R&R) portion by the government, and the other is collector land.
Our community has been deprived of many basic services. People could access electricity supply only from 2016. We have always bought water and paid very high prices for it. Since early 2020, the process for a water pipeline has begun and is still underway. We live our routine lives like this, every day is a struggle for basic services.
Restrictions on women
Even before the lockdown, women in the basti faced domestic violence and girls faced a lot of restrictions in terms of mobility. We often tried to work on these problems through dialogue with the parties. With the lockdown however, since the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, there has been a significant increase in domestic violence and restrictions on women and girls have increased manifold. The reason for this is that as all the family members are mostly home these days, and with limited income and savings, people’s frustration and aggression has increased.
Those who are addicted to substances are spending meagre savings on purchasing alcohol, for instance, leading to growing conflicts at home. Women and children are getting beaten up more, as they are the soft targets in the household.
Some of the girls from these homes in distress used to go out to some extent earlier, but now many are forbidden, with their brothers and fathers keeping a watch on them all day long.
Increase in sexual harassment cases
Before the lockdown, we came across many instances of harassment faced by girls. But as the lockdown started and continued, the number of cases have grown. More girls are facing sexual harassment and feeling restricted. The women in the house are aware about the situation and these violations happening at home, but sometimes they prefer to remain silent and refrain from talking about it by saying, “There is no food in the house and if I accuse a family member at this time, where will I go. What will happen to my children?”
Just a few weeks ago, a 2-year-old girl faced sexual abuse by her stepfather. Her mother took no action because she feels that if she files any charges on her husband, no one will support her after that financially.
Whenever I meet such women, I recall the words of my friend Shaili (name changed), “Women spend their lives thinking like this. If they do not speak now, they will never be able to speak up. We must start acting now. It is very important to bring awareness and solve these problems”. Shaili and I are both from Nakshatra, a young girls’ collective facilitated by the non-profit Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action (YUVA). The collective offers community adolescents a platform and safe space to talk about and tackle issues they and other girls in the community face through organized efforts.
A lot of girls used to connect with us, but since the lockdown started, many girls are not able to come to group meetings and connect with the members. We connected with them personally and came to know that they are unable to get out of the houses at present. They say “Even if we are willing, we will not get permission to come. We cannot come until they (male members) start working again.”
Freedom and empowerment
My friend Ruksana says that people have many expectations from girls to behave in a certain manner. But they forget that even girls desire freedom, safety from their family members and others. “If we have freedom, then we girls can achieve anything, but we do not have freedom. We hope to have it someday”. Ruksana also says, “I wish we girls could be free like the birds and do what we feel like”. I always hear that it is not safe for girls to be alone, but why don’t people see that girls are not safe alone because of the people who treat us badly.
Despite all our current challenges, we want to keep working to empower girls and women, spread awareness about different issues and how every person can speak up for themselves. We conduct home visits to check on each other, and conduct some sessions online.
Through our interactions at the Nakshatra group, we have learnt a lot from each other. We have gotten to know of different problems girls face at home, what are their restrictions on mobility, the threats they face of forced early marriage, no family support for their higher education, constant permission-seeking for every tiny decision, and more. We try to engage with one another freely, so that we can keep sharing about our situation and challenges, and try to find solutions to the problems we face.
Our group building and creative expression sessions have helped build confidence in girls. Next we are thinking of organising creative life skill sessions along with study and games sessions, so that more girls can keep joining and learning together.
Our mission is to help more and more girls like us break out of their shackles and live freely, whilst also creating an enabling and supportive environment. This will not only contribute to their development but will also help our community and society become stronger and more gender-sensitive.