It is past 8pm at night in Delhi, the recent icy winds from Himalayas have forced everyone to seek refuge in comfortable warm cocoons of their homes. Left on roads are select vendors who are wrapping up business and few others who seemingly are rushing somewhere.
Amid this, there is the noise of woman squabbling from a blue-coloured hut structure. These are porta cabins put up by the Delhi government for homeless people. (Years back activists drew attention of the Supreme Court which came to rescue for homeless people and made it mandatory for state to provide shelter support.) As one move closer to the cabin to find the cause of provocation, the account which unfolds is a very interesting predicament—there is a woman beggar who was being forced out by fellow inmates at a cabin as she had unkempt hair infested by lice and she smells rotten. Possibly she is drunk.
It took some coaxing and negotiation mediated by the shelter home caretaker to allow a small corner for this woman. Not however without a commitment by the woman to take a ‘bath the next day’. The trail encouraged me to take a closer look at lives of the women in these spaces. And the learning was like that old-age adage ‘we like to paint all with the same brush’.
The exact number of homeless women in Delhi presently seems to be unknown. The state nodal agency Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board which manages the shelter homes updates occupancy information on a daily basis however de-segregated data on women is not available.
Who is she?
Unlike men who generally migrate to big cities in search of livelihood and use shelter homes, women end up using these spaces as the last resort for survival. Women in these shelter homes are either deserted by their husbands or are escaping domestic violence and abuse in families and/ or have been abandoned in old age homes to fend for themselves. A woman shared her ordeal of escaping the traffickers in one shelter.
There is no denying that these spaces have offered a roof over head but certainly have failed to link them to a sustainable livelihood option. As these women are illiterate and unskilled they get work only as a domestic worker in neighbouring quarters or end up living on mercy from charity by nearby holy temples or mosques. If nothing avails, a 65-year-old remarked that they are ‘forced into beggary’ for seeking subsistence.
The state schemes for homeless women are designed with a framework of providing ‘shelter support’ only and lack an inter-disciplinary approach. This can again be clearly ascertained from the fact that although women in shelter homes reported being victims of violence and sexual abuse, there is no process for their continued counselling or legal aid.
A caretaker at the home narrated how through her resources she had once supported a woman in a shelter to seek property rights usurped by her family members. This is one of the cases, but most homeless women end up becoming more and more vulnerable and dependent on services at shelter homes. All are not willing to engage, they stay withdrawn and aloof. Some even attempt to hide their true identity. Perhaps, life first on roads and later in shelter homes have made them withdrawn to shells where they see no light.
The state provides for mobile health van twice a week with the basic medical kit and paramedic staff at all shelters. Occasionally health camps are also organised by the NGOs. However, these measures have largely failed to take note of the needs and profiles of women using their aid.
The average age of a woman in shelter homes is around 45-50 years or more. And there is no denial that with age, the need for specialised health care including correct diagnosis of the ailment and continued support mechanism increases. But there is no design in the plan to take notice of this aspect.
Women reported suffering from orthopaedic issues, kidney stones, and skin diseases etc. All of which requires specialized healthcare service, which as one of them remarked in ‘private hospital was way too expensive’ and in public ‘out of their bounds and knowledge’. As a result, they end up enduring the pain silently.
The situation of pregnant and lactating mothers is no different. There is a lack of awareness about the benefits of immunisation and nutritious food. Although institutional delivery is encouraged however some women reported delivery in shelter homes by local ideas as well.
Left with no choice
Interestingly, the spaces which speak for safety and security lack empathy. A woman with children seeking shelter support is counselled to send them away to children’s homes. ‘They will be saved from the ordeal I will face on road’ is an account narrated by a woman who had to send her children away. She admits that the separation anxiety at times grips her but she gathers self as she asks me nonchalantly ‘does she have a choice’. Hearing this one is left wondering whether the attempt to provide shelter to a homeless woman is actually denying her right to motherhood?
The lost souls
Clearly, the state’s intent is to provide ‘transit’ shelter support imagining that these women will eventually fend for themselves and move on. However the fact is that most women are using ‘shelters’ as a permanent home with some reporting to be residing for more than five years.
And the pattern is set to continue if reforms are not introduced at all levels and integration of state provided services is not undertaken. The re-integration of these women requires support mechanisms engaging the Departments of Women and Child, Family & Health Welfare and Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board and others in the long run. Till then, the life in these homes will be as one of the puts it ‘we are living but our souls are lost’.
Smita Khanijow, a member of the State Supervisory Board for implementation of the PCPNDT Act in Delhi, works with ActionAid in the national capital