Dharavi shows the smart way

A group of fearless residents in a Mumbai slum holds up a smartphone against violence


Prabhavati Jaiswar (from left), Nirmala Jaiswar and Akshay Mane with their smartphones, installed with an ODK form and the EyeWatch app, to document gender-based violence. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint
Prabhavati Jaiswar (from left), Nirmala Jaiswar and Akshay Mane with their smartphones, installed with an ODK form and the EyeWatch app, to document gender-based violence. Photographs by Abhijit Bhatlekar/Mint

I am squatting on the floor in Prabhavati Jaiswar’s home when she turns to me and says, “I don’t make tea very often, but would you like a cup?”

The 37 year-old’s house, located in the Rajiv Gandhi Nagar colony of Dharavi, a sprawling slum located in the heart of Mumbai, has two parts. A wall, not much taller than Prabhavati, separates the kitchen from the living room. A cane chatai (mat) covers the entire floor. Prabhavati’s five-year-old son sleeps soundly, as we settle down with the tea. Around us, an almirah, an upturned plastic bucket and a desk with a sewing machine stand against the blue walls. “I used to stitch flowers on dupattas,” says Prabhavati, one among the thousands of women whose cheap labour bolsters the tailoring units of Dharavi.

As the Rs.1 and Rs.2 coins stuck on the kitchen wall catch the afternoon sun that pours in through the main door, Prabhavati’s pride shines through while talking about her discovery. Her kothi (house) stood on the grave of a pir (Sufi saint) and she lost no time in telling her neighbours. Now, people regularly drop in on Thursdays, fresh after a bath, and non-menstruating if they are women, to make a wish (“But, only clean and good prayers,” she adds). If the coin sticks, their wish will come true.

Prabhavati turns to Nirmala Jaiswar. “Why didn’t you come yesterday? You said you will.” Nirmala argues and replies, “That Banav—I was spending time with him and my whole day went just like that.” Between sips of tea, we discuss everything, from a gruesome murder that took place a lane away from Prabhavati’s house last year, to videos of the games the women played to prepare a programme for International Women’s Day in which, during practice, many of them took a tumble, cracked up often, and folded their saris above their knees to make it easier to play.

“It’s great to have this group to depend on; this is a circle of women whom I can’t wait to meet and spend time with,” says Nirmala, who hails from the same district as Prabhavati in Uttar Pradesh, and shares the same caste name.

The 48-year-old resident of the Parsi chawl, which is a 10-minute walk from Prabhavati’s house, past a choked, open drain and narrow lanes, is referring to a group of women from the 160-odd sanginis (volunteer workers) of non-governmental organization SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action), which works with the residents of Mumbai’s underdeveloped areas.

The ‘sanginis’ have sewn a map of Dharavi showing incidents of violence in the past year
The trio was recruited last July when SNEHA started the Little Sister Project. Funded by the United Nations Development Programme, the project trained the local women to identify and report incidents of violence against women—physical, psychosocial, economic, among others—using smartphones. Nirmala, Prabhavati, 30-year-old Banav (who goes by the name Akshay Mane), and other sanginis were handed Android phones which contained an open data kit (ODK) form and later, an app called EyeWatch was uploaded to it. The sanginis fill the document with information of the violence that they witness. The form is stored in a central database maintained by the NGO that keeps the identity of the survivors private.

The EyeWatch app, developed by security services firm Indianeye Security Pvt. Ltd, complements the ODK form, and gives an option to the sangini to take audio and visual clips of an incident. Once the app is activated and an alert raised, a call goes through to a SNEHA employee in case the sangini requires assistance. These audio and visual clips get stored in a central database, and not on the phone. The sangini is asked to inform the survivor of ways in which the survivor can access help: through filing a police report, seeking treatment at a hospital, taking the assistance of a counsellor at SNEHA, or calling for home-based intervention. The impetus behind the project is to map the scope of violence taking place in the community and then specify the intervention taken, says programme coordinator Koushiki Banerjee.

“We learnt that the easiest thing to do is to knock on the door when we hear violence taking place. Interruption gives the man time to cool down,” says Nirmala, recounting an incident when she, along with a group of women knocked on her neighbour’s door when they heard the man beating his wife. They stood outside a long time but didn’t leave, says Nirmala. “When the husband finally opened the door, we saw his wife sitting and crying. She had marks on her arms because he was beating her with a belan (rolling pin). There was blood flowing out,” she says. “I told him I needed to borrow a torch because the fuse had tripped. That bought us some time and a few women entered the house and went to the wife.” The woman was taken to a hospital and Nirmala helped file a police complaint, she says. “The neighbour eventually took his wife back to their village,” she says. This is not an isolated case of assault. Dharavi, home to more than one million people, sees a large number of incidents of violence against women, including gruesome ones, such as the September 2014 murder that Prabhavati had alluded to. Then, a 28-year-old tailor had murdered his wife of four months by poisoning her, cutting her body and dumping the pieces in gunny bags in the garbage. The body was discovered later at a dumping site in Mulund, a suburb of Mumbai, and the husband was arrested. “All the women in the gali (neighbourhood) were shocked when they got to know of his crime,” recalls Prabhavati, adding that the wife was pregnant when her husband murdered her, a fact that most news reports of the incident missed.

"We learnt that the easiest thing to do is to knock on the door when we hear violence taking place. Interruption gives the man time to cool down."
SNEHA presented a convergence model report on 3 March in Mumbai based on data collected over a six-month period, from July to December 2014. The report took into account the areas where violence is predominant; the various forms it takes, including physical, sexual, psychosocial, verbal; the frequency at which it takes place; and the kinds of intervention that the survivors have sought. Of the 345 survivors, whose information was analysed, 33% stated substance abuse as the cause of violence, 30% pinned it on economic constraint, but 26% said they didn’t know the cause of violence. Of the types of economic violence that women faced, the most rampant was denial of access to money. Humiliation before others formed the most common type of psycho-social violence against women, along with suspicion. Physical violence took the form of strangulation, use of instruments, kerosene and chemicals; 51% reported violence through beating. The most ubiquitous form of violence that women faced was verbal: 70% women owned up to being abused and threatened, followed by physical abuse that 59% reported as having faced. Sexual violence was faced by 16% respondents. The most sobering fact that emerged from the data was that 40% of the women faced violence every day, 28% each week. Banerjee says 19% of the 345 cases have gone to the police and non-cognizable offence/first information reports have been filed.

Nayreen Daruwalla, SNEHA’s programme director of Prevention of Violence against Women and Children, says that recruiting sanginis was a way to help women in Dharavi “evolve mechanisms to deal with gender-based violence and build their skills to deal with the problem of violence against women independently and show zero tolerance”.

Since 2001, SNEHA has reached out to 300,000 women in the community and handled 5,400 cases of violence against women; mobilizing 130 women groups and engaging more than 1,600 women in Dharavi, the report states.

“While carrying out interventions we realized that often the solutions that came from community women and men were more plausible,” Daruwalla says. “There was a need to build ownership of the issue to be considered their own and not as an NGO trying to build awareness about it. Dharavi hosts communities from multi-ethnic backgrounds. The issues of violence that women approach us with do not differ.”

Nirmala would agree: “I tell my daughter-in-law, mazboot aurat ban (become a strong woman). Even if it’s my own son, speak up.” The mobile phones, say the women, have brought about a big change in the way people in the neighbourhood perceive them. “When they see us hold up the phone, they start behaving properly,” laughs Banav, a sangini who is close friends with Nirmala and helps her fill her ODK form ever so often. While that may be an unavoidable fallout of their work, Prabhavati and company also rue the flak they receive, not just from the neighbours but from their own families. “They tell us, why are you unnecessarily interfering in the lives of other people?” says Nirmala. “But no matter who says what, if I see violence being committed on a woman, I have to go support her. I’m not afraid.”

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