Journeys for Change

From 10th to 20th November Tom took part in Journeys for Change, an exciting adventure into the role that social enterprise, local NGOs and social business play in the delivery of services for the poorest people in Mumbai and Gujarat.

Organised and facilitated by Unlimited India the party of nine thought leaders on the subject and social entrepreneurs – from Ireland, UK, India, USA and Switzerland – met practitioners and beneficiaries and examined the finer detail of their work.

During the week Tom wrote five articles for the Journey Blog which can be accessed from the link above.

Alternatively, here they are…


1. Tom Levitt visits a charity project working in the rubbish dumps of Mumbai

Life in the dump: the Gleaner Girls

The people who live around Asia’s largest rubbish dump don’t exist.

At least, that’s the official view of the authorities which provide no housing, no water supply, and no law enforcement for an unknown number of families who make their meagre living sorting through Mumbai’s waste. Children as young as six are gleaners, sorting materials that can be re-sold to create family income: plastics, metal, the odd piece of treasure trove. There are thousands of them, sparsely scattered over hundreds of acres of man-made desert from six a.m. each day. It is a desert to which a continual succession of soot-breathing lorries is dumping a never-ending supply of material, the detritus of 20 million people, every day.

Due to the pressure to earn the children who have to work on the dump are mostly uneducated; often families are reluctant to spare them the time to find a school, time which could be spent finding a near-serviceable machine or wearable clothing from the rotting detritus. It would make sense for them to work in groups for their own safety, but that would mean sharing any rich seam they find with others, so they often work alone. But this makes the children and young people even more vulnerable; there are incidents of abuse and even gang rape reported to have happened on the dump.

At last some teenage heroes have found the strength to buck the trend.

Aangan is a national organisation, a not for profit enterprise, which works to support vulnerable young people across 12 states of India. Initially designed to support children in institutions, where the orphaned, abused and trafficked and children in conflict with law were traditionally lumped together in neglected squalor, increasingly they have taken on outreach work in disadvantage communities in the city including places like the Mumbai dumping ground. Their Shakti project empowers vulnerable girls to take control of their own lives, to stand up to the authorities, to bullies and to misguided parents. Through group sessions and by designing, planning and implementing a community projects they experience the power of collective action. This experience increases the girls’ self-confidence to bring about change for them, too. The result of the girls’ projects are amazing: 750 girls who had either left school early or never attended in the first place have joined or rejoined mainstream school in this part of Mumbai alone, including some with special needs.

Often in the face of outright opposition from parents and mullahs the girls, mostly recruited by word of mouth, are taught their rights, reflect on their dreams, make their own community newsletter, learn negotiation and skills; where to find help for education, vocation, health, domestic and even worse problems. Over the course of the 14 sessions they have fun together, develop ambitions and, in almost every case, self confidence and self belief.

Discrimination against women is rife. Outcomes from this investment of strength is that girls in the Shakti project resist child marriage better than others, think seriously about financial independence and jobs, are supported by their peers, and most importantly dare to dream and make plans for their future.

And the Shakti girls spread the word, being the best ambassadors and recruits to the project, often starting by teaching their own mothers how to sign their names. Many graduates of the Shakti programme begin apprenticeships as peer leaders; one 17-year old, for example, supports five separate groups of gleaner girls in the Shakti philosophy.

Funded by donors such as Unicef and venture philanthropists, Aangan maintains an arm’s length relationship with government. Having started the project to clean up government institutions founder Suparna Gupta, a former top advertising executive, is wary of asking them for funds; yet the sheer size, growth, value and importance of this project means that a more sustainable funding model must be found. Government is perhaps less likely to be hostile to this successful former critic on the basis of the results she has produced than it might previously have been.

Change is very slow and no one expects success overnight. But the potential that these women have released amongst girls in Mumbai, and the justice that is being achieved step by step as a result are so well worth having.