Last week, on Thursday, I went to visit one of the disadvantaged communities in Mumbai, where Aangan runs its PACT (Parents and Children Against Trafficking/Harm) program. “Through PACT, adult volunteers in the community are trained and empowered to be alert to child protection issues such as early marriage, trafficking, violence and abuse; to respond to the harm that children face; and to activate government systems and services to promote children’s safety and protection.”

It was a great day and I am very happy I got the change to meet some of the PACT mothers who work together for the better of their community in the transit camp close to Wadala. The Maharashtra state government built the camp for people who have been displaced from various slum areas in Mumbai, slums that are being demolished to make room for various development projects.

I love the word “mother”. It has a world of meaning! Maybe this definition on the Urban Dictionary encompasses best what “mom” means or should mean: “The woman who loves you unconditionally […], the one who puts her kids before herself and the one who you can always count on above everyone else. Just telling her your problems makes you feel better because moms always know how to make it all go away. Even if you fight, know that she’s just looking out for your best interests.

During the meeting last week I got the feeling that the PACT mothers are like this. They might not be birth mothers but the community children are like their own and they put a lot of effort into making their lives better.

The meeting I participated to was actually a Community Help Desk to inform the women about training opportunities and possible job placements. The Garbage Concern Welfare Society, a local NGO, wanted to share information about their Green Manager Program. The program trains school dropouts, unemployed, unskilled people and rag pickers in gardening, basic housekeeping, waste management and soft skills. They also help them to find jobs at the end of the training, which is great. A possible income of 72.000INR a year is only a bit more than 1000EUR, but for some of these families it can mean the line between abject poverty and having food on the table for their children. 20 women subscribed for the training, ready to start the very next day. Exciting!

The two members of GCWS gave important advice: “if you don’t understand something, ask! Do not be ashamed or afraid to ask questions!” This may seem irrelevant but for some of these women there is a language barrier. They might not know usual Hindi words or the English equivalent; they don’t leave their communities very often and strangers or people in a position of authority intimidate them; they have been rebuked when they asked questions before and they avoid doing it. It was a little like I was told in school, “the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask” and I hope this message made them less timid.

After 20 ladies signed up for training, I had chai with 4 of the 5 PACT mothers and the Aangan staff: Kalpana, Samyukta and Ajoy. With the help of Samyukta I talked with Bindu. She told me why PACT is so important in her life and for the community, why she comes to meetings and encourages other women to join.

Bindu has been a PACT mother for about 6 months. Sunita, another PACT mother, told her about the Aangan center and she came to see what was happening. She liked it and she decided to join the group. What does she like best about PACT? Here the women can access a lot of knowledge! Knowledge about child protection laws, about government schemes to help financially the most disadvantaged in the community, laws about child marriage, etc. During the past 6 months Bindu has learned a lot of things and she also made sure to share that knowledge with the other women in the community!

Bindu loves that, at the center, women and girls are empowered. Here she learned that she is important, that she matters, that women and girls are as important as men and boys. I write this and I feel emotional. Never for a moment in my 30 years I doubted my place in my family or in the community I was part of. I never looked at a boy or a man, thinking that he is better than me because of his gender. Never.

Bindu and the other PACT mothers are working now on their own community project. They are gathering signatures in order to have a proper community toilet. After they gather as many signatures as they can, they will approach the government official with their application and ask for support in having a proper toilet build. After this issue will be solved, they will tackle the problem of street lightning.

These might not seem much of a project but they are extremely important! Women and girls in poor communities in India risk being raped when they go searching for a toilet. According to a Times of India article, a woman is raped in India every 30 minutes: “a 13-year analysis of crime data reveals that a little more than 57 rapes were reported every day. This averages over two rapes every hour, every day during the last 13 years. A total of 2,72,844 cases were reported across 28 states and seven UTs in this period.” According to World Bank: “Globally, 2.5 billion people lack access to improved sanitation; of which 1 billion practice open defecation. For women […], open defecation not only impacts health but it also compromises dignity and puts their safety at risk. In addition, without adequate sanitation in schools girls often forgo education.” So projects like Bindu’s project can change completely the life of the women in the community. Girls can go to schools and feel safe. Women can leave the house and go about their work feeling safe. This is IMPORTANT in every community.

This year’s UN theme for International Women’s Day is “Empowering Women – Empowering Humanity: Picture it!” This is what Aangan is doing in 6 states in India, in disadvantaged communities in urban and rural area. Seeing it with my own eyes has been a humbling experience.

I asked Bindu if their families were supporting them in joining Aangan’s PACT. With a big smile she told me that her husband was very supportive. Her children no longer live in the community but her husband encouraged her to join. Sunita’s husband was also very supportive and her 3 children participate in the other Aangan programs. The girl goes to the Shakti meetings and her 2 boys have joined Chauraha.

At the end of our chai I asked about the beautifully drawn tree on the wall of their small center. They told me that they wrote there the dreams of their PACT group and what they envision for their community. It roughly translates in:

  • Child labour has to be stopped
  • Everyone should have access to education
  • Domestic violence and rape must be stopped
  • There should be police patrols in our community to stop the wrong doers
  • Men and women who work late should have police protection, the police should make sure they come back to a secure environment
  • There should be a safe place for kids to play in the community!

Step by step the PACT mothers will make all these dreams happen. They are the face of women empowerment in India’s poor communities!

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Learning about the Green Manager Program

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A vision for their community

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Bindu and Sunita

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Meeting the mothers