In our cities, ever so often, when a sprawling slum becomes a festering eyesore, the authorities just shift it out. It’s simple enough, one night’s work, a couple of bulldozers and a dozen lathi-wielding policemen. When we wake up in the morning, we see the empty plot, perhaps a few things strewn about, a shoe missing its pair or a shred of old cloth. We shrug and move on, our scenery restored.
Holambi Kalan is a village, 40 minutes from New Delhi’s bustling ITO junction. It is here, tucked on one side of National Highway-1, far away for the city to see or smell, that large clusters of these slum dwellers have relocated. At the final turn to Holambi Kalan, as the gates of the railway crossing close behind you, you realize that it’s not just Delhi that has forgotten Holambi Kalan’s residents—time has forgotten them too.
Babita, with no last name or any real fixed address, is aware of this. She reckons she is around 17. She remembers being married, she cannot recall how old she was. “My sister was about 15 then and when a good proposal came for her, my parents decided that they would get me married on the same day too. That way, they wouldn’t have to incur the expenses of a wedding party twice,” she says in Hindi. Marriage of all the girls in the family on the same day is common in Holambi Kalan.
Now, it’s time for Babita to move in with her husband. But she does not want to go. The news that has been dripping in through the years is that her husband has grown up to be no-good, an alcoholic who hasn’t held a job down for too long. She has told her father that she will not go to live with her husband, and if he forces her she will just run away.
This is a new phenomenon in Holambi Kalan; this emergence of girls who dare to know their mind and, horror of horrors, speak it. It’s a small flicker of modernity in a place stuck in the past. Most parents abhor it, but a few of them are indulging their daughters’ protests. Babita says that attending the meetings at Child Survival India (CSI) has changed her life in ways she could not even imagine. For the last nine years, CSI has been working actively with the community at Holambi Kalan. They talk to adolescent girls and teach them the rudiments of life that most of us take for granted. “I started coming to the CSI meetings and realized they were talking openly about things like menstruation, pregnancy, HIV, etc., and telling us what to do and what to avoid. I was happy that there was a place I could take my doubts and problems to,” says Babita.
Mind opener: Babita (centre) and some other girls in Holambi Kalan can speak confidently about issues such as AIDS. Photo: Harikrishna Katragadda
Life’s big lessons can only be taught in small steps, and no one is more aware of this than Deepa Bajaj, who heads CSI. “When we first started working in these communities, people used to abuse us. They thought we were filling their children’s heads with rubbish. But today we see such a huge improvement in their lives,” she says.
Babita and other girls don’t just talk confidently of issues such as AIDS, they have even evolved to be the mouths of CSI—taking their message to others like them through street plays. The plays effortlessly weave modern messages with traditional folk songs. They address the perils of child marriages, early and frequent deliveries, and the threat of disease.
“What I realized after working in these communities is that in cities, because we have access to schools and books, we get a lot of information. These girls don’t go to school, they are stuck at home all the time and there is no one to teach them even the basics of life. But we have to package it in a way that does not threaten their way of life,” says Bajaj. For instance, girls are told that once they marry and get pregnant, they should eat with the rest of the family. They believe it is because their husbands will feel good about it. But in reality, it ensures that the mother-to-be gets a decent share of the food. If she eats last, as is the tradition, she often gets the least, or sometimes nothing at all. While CSI members do not interfere in the decisions about life that these girls make, they explain the consequences of their actions in detail.
CSI also imparts life skills— teaching the girls computer skills, tailoring, or training them to be beauticians. Babita used to attend the tailoring classes, but gave up when her mother fell ill. She plans to resume them soon. She knows her future is not going to be easy and that it’s essential for her to be self-reliant. If she breaks up the marriage, her father would have to compensate the groom’s family with money he does not have. And the taint that she was once married will stay. If she’s lucky, she says, her father will find a divorcee or a widower for her to marry. But she doesn’t want to take any chances.
She now dares to believe that it’s possible to bet on herself.
Child Survival India (CSI), New Delhi
CSI works among the slum and rural communities of Delhi, Haryana, Chandigarh and Punjab. Its work revolves around HIV prevention among vulnerable and high-risk behaviour groups, in-patient and community care and support for HIV patients, and life skills for street and working children. For women and girls, it runs programmes that include comprehensive maternal and child healthcare, legal literacy and empowerment. The NGO is funded by grants from the Delhi Commission for Women, department of women and child development and international agencies such as The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Rs5,000 For This Charity Can
• Help conduct six sessions on reproductive health for 30 girls
• Organize a one-day health camp for 100 street and working children
• Help three girls take a six-month course on computer skills
• Buy milk and nutritious food for one HIV-positive child for one year
If You Want To Volunteer
CSI is looking for volunteers across areas — running creative workshops, help in documentation, marketing inputs, etc