"In a society where even young boys are absolved of all responsibilities and waited on by their mothers, this is a profound change."
By Kim Burnett, Shadhika President and CEO
April 9, 2019
The bus stops and we get out. We walk down the narrow, winding dirt lanes carefully as the path is uneven and the ground wet from people washing their dishes and clothes. This community of over 3,000 sits right next to a garbage heap and most of the residents who live here work as ‘rag pickers.’
Approximately 4 million women in India work in this profession. Many of them are single mothers, working tirelessly for their families, starting as early as 2 am to collect and scavenge as much as 50 pounds of waste a day, earning an average of $2 for a day’s labor.
We’ve come to this community to visit the after-school program run by the Equal Community Foundation (ECF), Shadhika’s grantee partner in Pune, India. The program raises awareness in boys to combat gender-based violence and discrimination.
Eventually we come to a community room, the site of our meeting. Made from a salvaged shipping container, the room is cool and dark. After a few minutes, a woman appears in the doorway, framed by the outside light.
Two of her boys are participants in the program. She explains that she is a single mother, her husband having abandoned her and her two sons years ago for another woman. Faced with no other family support, she’s made her livelihood as a rag picker. As her days are long, she encouraged her boys to participate in ECF’s program initially as a means of keeping them safe, away from the threats of alcohol and truancy.
However she quickly saw the larger benefits of the program as the boys began helping her with household chores and treating her with greater respect. In a society where even young boys are absolved of all responsibilities and waited on by their mothers, this is a profound change. The boys sit up tall as they share their favorite chores, “sweeping,” “doing the dishes,” and “going to the market.” One shares further how he used to join with other boys to harass girls on the street but as a result of his time with ECF, he has stopped this and now hangs out with new friends from the program.
After a while, we take to the lanes again, to visit the home of an older boy, now a graduate of the program. We learn he just recently completed training in Mumbai to become a professional dancer. Such an unorthodox career path is notable, given India’s reputation for ‘toxic masculinity.’ When we meet his father, we see why. He explains he sent his sons to ECF’s program because he wanted them to learn the behaviors and attitudes they would need to be part of the larger society. His pride in his sons and passion for them to achieve more is palpable.
As we return to the main road, I gaze back. From this vantage point, the community is mostly obscured by the large garbage heap. Taking the heap in, I think how hard it must be to sort through it and find the scraps of value. How one would need a loving parent such as those we’ve met to lift you up and help you catch the light so you have a chance to shine.Read more