October 29, 2017
By Kim Burnett, Shadhika President and CEO
“Do you have a uterus?” The question catches me off guard, but the young girl before me earnestly wants to know. We are sitting on the floor in a community room in a ‘basti’ (slum) outside of Mumbai, visiting with the young women and men who are participating in an after-school program supported by Shadhika. Though the rickety ceiling fan spinning above us is trying its hardest, the small room is stuffy, as it is crowded with over 60 eager young students who have gathered to share what they are learning. I am here for a Shadhika site visit, and this is one of nine visits we will make in the next three weeks.
We break into small groups and listen as the students walk us through the presentations they have put together on various topics. I am now sitting with a group of about ten young women, between the ages of 12 and 18, who have been learning about their bodies. And so they want to know, do I have a uterus? After answering in the affirmative, we go on to discuss our periods, reproductive anatomy, and boys. I am struck by the forthrightness of these girls and how at ease they seem with the topic, displaying none of the embarrassment one might expect from a group of teenage girls learning about their bodies.
But then, these are students at VACHA, Shadhika’s grantee partner in Mumbai. For the last three years, with Shadhika’s support, VACHA has run an after-school program for these students who come from one of the poorest slums in Mumbai. Through this program they have been learning English and computers as well as about their rights and how to take action to advance their rights.
The next small group walks me through their PowerPoint discussing the challenges of child marriage. They tell me about an incident earlier this year where, with VACHA’s help, they took action to stop the marriage of a 16 year old in their community. Another group tells us about their work to get the government to put in more toilets in their community. In their slum of 4,000, there are only eight toilets, of which just four are for women and girls. Each morning there is a long queue to use them and many girls must wait until they get to school to use the bathroom, which means they must hold their bladders for up to three hours.
They share how they are facing challenges in their efforts to put in more toilets because the criminal element that controls much of their community is opposing the move. But the girls are undeterred and they discuss the ideas they have to get this change implemented. “We will go to the media,” one shouts. “We will get our parents to demand it,” another says.
As they continue to brainstorm ideas, they get more and more enthusiastic, and the teacher eventually steps in to get them to settle down. I reflect on my last visit, six months earlier, when they were just beginning to discuss this issue and if they should take it on, and how much progress they have made, not just in their work, but in their leadership and confidence.
As we end our visit and walk down the narrow alleyway back to the main road, I smile to myself, imagining the progress I am sure they will make between now and my next visit, and laugh silently at how much I look forward to using the inevitable new toilets these young leaders will stop at nothing to get.Read more