Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Women Together, Leading Change: Reflections of my visit to UHRC

Author: Brenda Puech 

This blog serves the first part of my two-part series on my visit to observe UHRC’s program in Indore. Part 1 highlights the efforts of UHRC mentored women’s groups in improving their lives in Indore’s slums. Part 2 will focus on various morale boosting activities UHRC undertakes with slum women in Indore.

With active slum based women's groups
With active slum based women's groups in Indore

In January 2023, I was privileged enough to visit Indore and observe first hand some of the efforts an organisation called Urban Health Resource Centre, India  in improving lives of the slum residents among the most deprived communities in the area. 

What I saw was both eye opening and heartwarming! I witnessed the seeds of empowerment, confidence and progress blooming in the impoverished streets of Ram Nagar, Kailash Nagar, Nandan Bagh and Avantikanagar. All this achieved by groups of local women working together, encouraged and facilitated by the dedicated and immensely hardworking staff of UHRC. 

A huge achievement for both! 

The areas I visited are on the outskirts of Indore in the most deprived parts of this prosperous city. These are semi-rural settlements with little or no public services or infrastructure. Limited water supply, suboptimal no sewerage, unpaved streets and several homes using hooked (informal) electric connections to homes. Ignored by politicians and administrators, there are no good quality public schools or health centers let alone banks in these neighborhoods.  Most slum dwellers work in the informal sector such as line operators in factories, construction sites, daily wage labourers, street vendors. Their only access to credit is via local money lenders at astronomical interest rates of 60% per annum or more.  

However, there are positives to living in dense settlements as these bring communities together making them more cohesive. This blog will give a snapshot of certain activities promoted by UHRC to empower slum based women’s groups and how they are stimulating change through their leadership. 

An unpaved lane in Avantika Nagar

Over a couple of days in early January 2023, I was able to see the considerable impact that UHRC had had on the lives, health, happiness and confidence of women and children living here by means of gentle motivation. A little input goes a long way.

Requesting for a public water supply in New Ram Nagar  

Imagine having to request to the authorities to provide a public water supply to your neighborhood, something we all take for granted.  This is what the women in New Ram Nagar got together to do.  

Chandrakala ji, the trainer at the Silayi (tailoring) Centre invited us to her home. Her daughter-in-law explained how  an unreliable government borewell to fetch water from a distant source.  The local women collectively submitted repeated written requests to the civic administration asking for a communal bore well and finally their efforts paid off and they got their borewell in New Ram Nagar.  Climate change is what threatens them now as they are concerned about their well drying up in the summer. Since this is a relatively new settlement, piped water supply is not yet operational. 

Ubiquitous blue water containers indicating water scarcity 

In another slum, Nandbagh, we learnt that some women’s groups have requested for household piped water connections in slums from civic authorities. When no action was taken, women submitted reminders. These efforts have resulted in laying of piped water supply in some lanes. 

 Women showing us copies of request letters submitted to the authorities

Collective savings by women's groups 

Slum dwellers do not usually have access to formal work and regular salaries, let alone to banks and credit. Local informal money-lenders charge exorbitant interest rates. This lack of credit is a stranglehold to progress. 

UHRC has been encouraging  slum women saving collectively as a group each month  to generate enough capital to provide small loans at a modest interest rate to the savers. This source of cheap credit has transformed women’s lives.  They can pay for their children’s school and college education, prevent dropout and secure their future as adults. Women drew loans to start a new business or pump resources into an existing one. Credit has been used for local grocery stores, vending vegetables, selling saris, buying one or more sewing machines to set up a tailoring business. They can now pay off old debt that has been dogging them over the years.  

Loans from women’s savings groups play a crucial role in improving housing.  We are not talking about decoration or a new kitchen, but about installing a toilet where the home had none and connecting to the sewer system or building their own septic tank, raising the plinth of the home to prevent flood water entering it, or making a home built with temporary makeshift materials more permanent such as replacing a tin sheet roof with a concrete or brick one. Some slum dwellers have also built their own water storage tanks to secure themselves against shortages and ease the burden of collecting water miles away from home.

      Attending a women's groups meeting 

The Jay Shree Mahila Samooh (Women’s Group) collected Rs 74,000 in two years by each member putting in Rs 200 (£2) each month. They are very organised. Two diaries are maintained, one for accounting the balances of deposits and loans and the other to record the minutes of the monthly meetings.

The women have individual passbooks where they can record their real-time balances. Only 6 months after the group formed they were able to give out loans of Rs 3,000 and now each member can take out a significant Rs. 15,000 loan. That is three times their individual saving, a huge boost to them. 

Cash reserves kept in a large steel box!

Most women in the group do tailoring work for Indore’s booming garment industry  and are able to supplement their family income. Loans were mainly taken for the education of children, the purchase of sewing machines, and the repayment of old debt. At each meeting, one to two people are allowed to take out a loan at an interest rate of 2 % per month. The interest income is then distributed to the members at the end of the financial year.

Boosting women's livelihoods through tailoring

I visited a vocational training ‘Silai Centre’. Silai means stitching and tailoring, and the Centre turned out to be someone’s front room, complete with a double bed, which fitted in an astonishing number of women on the floor.

I joined the many current and former students assembled on the mats on the floor in a mass of colour and chatter.  We admired the beautiful, decorated clothes stitched by the women – frocks, kurtas, shirts, and sari blouses. They showed us how they learn to take measurements and told us they are taught theory and practice by an experienced trainer Chandrakala ji.  They start by following prototype patterns and then innovate! 

The youngest student, a girl of 11, was proudly wearing the red dress she had stitched herself. 

When they complete the course, the women receive a certificate. However, rates of pay remain abysmally low. Clothing factories only pay Rs 20-30, (£0.20-0.30p) per shirt though the official rate is apparently £1 per shirt. They hope to be able to charge higher rates once they are more experienced and established.

This is a valuable skill for women living here, as Indore is a manufacturing hub for readymade garments and needs local tailors. Some women have also established themselves entrepreneurially in slums by opening their own stitching shops where they design and stitch garments. Women are able to work from home to produce garments which is a huge advantage for them with their many responsibilities.

Final thoughts 

I was highly impressed by the tremendous progress made by the tenacious determination of the women of these communities to improve their and their family’s lives, encouraged and facilitated by UHRC staff, some of whom were from the communities themselves. Women are the backbone of communities. 

It demonstrated that even the most hopeless situations can be turned around if people work together, pool resources and insist on their rights to public services and infrastructure.  A hopeless debt can be paid off, a child sent to college, and a thriving business built up with access to suitable credit. With sensitive and micro input UHRC have demonstrated that small scale interventions can have a big impact- lives can be turned around and communities can thrive and prosper. 

Brenda Puech lives and works in London as an Inclusive Design Consultant. She has been a regular supporter of UHRC and visited UHRC Indore program as part of her India visit in January 2023. 

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