Vacha: Empowering Girls in Mumbai
I found the Vacha organization through a Google search. I actually found three different organizations (one in Delhi, one in Kolkata, and Vacha in Mumbai) doing work with gender issues. I sent emails to all three explaining who I was and a little about my research interests, and to my surprise, I received welcoming responses from all of them. The director of Vacha, Sonal, was the first to respond, and she was so warm and welcoming that by the time the other organizations responded, I felt like I already had an established relationship with Vacha. I made arrangements to work with the organization during our stay in Mumbai.
On our first day, the director arranged for one of the older girls to pick Emma and I up in a rickshaw. Poonam approached us on the street and introduced herself. She’s 17, just graduated, and applying for college. She told me that wants to be a lawyer to help girls fight for their rights. A smart and passionate girl. I could tell she was nervous to speak in English, but she did a great job welcoming us to Vacha. She described buildings along the route and answered all of my questions. I was really impressed with her.
When we arrived to Vacha’s office, which is located in three spare classrooms in a school building, we were greeted by three women who work there. We spent nearly three hours talking about the work of the organization. They started out as a library, more of a resource center for girls living in the slums, but they have grown significantly over the years. They now operate 17 different community centers in the slum communities, or bastis, as they are called. Additionally, they offer training workshops for teachers, programs for communities, and health fairs.
In the centers, they work to provide girls with life skills such as English, computers, and health related topics. What I love most about their work is they really work to support the girls’ voices. They teach the girls how to speak up in their communities, and they support leadership opportunities.
One of my days at the center, I was able to watch several videos that the girls made. The girls decided they wanted to know more about a woman who sells fruit outside of the school, so they wrote interview questions and interviewed her. They edited the interview into a lovely video that was so heartwarming to watch. It was probably the first time the girls had done such an important project, and it was evident that the woman took such pride in her work. One of the questions was about the woman’s education, and she laughed before answering, “No education. I wouldn’t be selling fruit if I had an education.” I was able to watch a second video on a women-run taxi service. The girls interviewed the founder who explained how she trained women who never thought they’d drive a car to be drivers for her taxi service.
The organization does such great work, but one of my favorite projects is the sharing of the girls’ stories in published books. As a qualitative researcher, I find such value in the sharing of stories. It’s so important to hear peoples’ stories, and it’s equally important that everyone feels their story is worth hearing about. There was one book that shares stories about the girls’ lives in the slums. In another book, the girls share stories about getting their menstrual cycle for the first time. The stories are hard to read. Many of the girls had no idea what was happening when they got their first period. One girl talked about being separated in a room for six days with no explanation. Educating girls on the menstrual cycle is one of the major initiatives of the health programs of Vacha.
I was able to accompany one of the teachers from Vacha to a competition that was planned for one of the communities by several of the older students. One of the teachers explained that they want the girls to be leaders, so that means supporting projects such as this. Even when they occur on Saturday.
The day began with an art competition. The students could pick between drawing their ideal living environment or a picture depicting what super hero power they would want to be. The kids did a great job. Many of the pictures displayed green landscapes with lots of space. A few of the pictures had strategically placed dust bins. One had a large dust bin by every house he drew. The kids were very aware of wanting a clean, trash-free environment. One of the super hero pictures was of a superman-type hero rescuing a person from the water. Another showed equality with a boy and a girl holding hands (it was my favorite).
The sports part of the competition took place on the beach. We walked through the narrow, heavily littered, walkways in the slums that eventually opened up to the beach where a large bungalow sat with an ocean view. I’m used to the wealth disparity of St. Louis, but seeing the extremes in Mumbai is almost too much to handle. The poorest of the poor living right next to extreme wealth. It breaks my heart to see it.
The boys were eager for the sports part of the competition, but the girls really held back. I learned that this community is really fortunate to have the beach so close because it provides them an area in which they can play. Other communities have no space, but even in this community, girls are hardly allowed to play. So this day of competition provided them with a really special opportunity to play, but still they were hesitant to participate.
Emma and I enthusiastically watched over an hour of races. Then the heat intensified, and we ran out of water. It was about this time that Emma overheated, which was really scary. She leaned against the wall (you know of the beach-front mansion) and closed her eyes. Next thing I know her head is bobbing from side to side, and she was struggling to say anything coherent. Luckily, one of the teachers had water to share and offered Emma her scarf to cover up. Nischint ended up walking us home to make sure that we made it safely.
Vacha is such an impressive organization and one that I would recommend to anyone wanting to know more about the status of girls in the slums of Mumbai. If you’re interested, you can find contact information for Vacha here.