There are over 100 slums in Surat, housing 45% of the ‘City of Diamonds’ six million inhabitants.
Aasha (Hope) commands leadership of the slums. She is barely literate, having been educated only through the 6th grade, but is a natural born leader, and has gained the respect of women throughout the slum community. Formerly a factory worker, she is solid and strong, with a smile that lights up not only her face, but the hearts of those around her. She is 39. A grandmother at the age of 33, she has four children and one grandchild.
Her husband drinks and beats her daily.
Mina (Pearl) is 24 years old, with two children. Always smiling and laughing, Mina lives life with a mischievous twinkle in her eye, unafraid of the risk at hand. She speaks openly of not having been ‘matched’ properly with her husband, who is several years older than she and drinks and beats her regularly.
Mina’s work entails helping to collect funds from women participating in the Federation’s informal community savings and loan program, encouraging them to put aside the equivalent of $.20 cents per day to save for their children’s education.
Just before I arrived in Surat, Mina’s brother was hospitalized after being beaten severely by a gang of men. He’d had an affair with a woman from outside the slum, and in the melee that followed, Mina herself was arrested. She spent the night in jail, in fear, trying frantically to reach Aasha. Finally, in the morning, Aasha arrived, paid the requisite bribe to the police, and secured her release.
And finally there is Ratna (Diamond). Ratna is bright, articulate, and hardworking. She was married at age 16, against her will, to a boy her age from another slum, who likes to drink first thing in the morning and beats her regularly. Desperate, and living day-to-day in despair, she nevertheless nearly completed her high school studies. Today, she handles administrative matters for the Federation, which she tells me brings hope and meaning to her life. She earns a little money here and there doing sewing and stitching during the wedding season.
Now, Ratna is 8 months pregnant and way too thin for an advanced stage pregnancy. She didn’t want to get pregnant, but her husband’s virility was being challenged by others in the community who gossiped about his lack of offspring.
All these women are Dalits…’untouchables’, with only their dignity and a newfound self-belief to sustain them. All have known hunger, abuse, discrimination and fear. All share a dream of bettering their lives and the lives of their children. All have told me that they, and the thousands of women who have joined the Federation, have no interest in charity. What they do want is a chance to lift themselves and their children out of generations of endemic poverty by gaining the skills and education they need; access to micro-loans for less than the 140% interest the local loan sharks charge; legal rights to protect them from alcoholic and abusive husbands and corrupt policemen; and basic amenities like toilets and running water.
Working together with Aasha, Mina, and Ratna, and so many other brave women, CorStone’s programs are now reaching 1,000 adolescent girls in 20 slums. We’ve had requests to at least double that figure in 2012, and to launch pilot programs in the giant slums of Mumbai as well. News of our work has spread like wildfire through these communities, igniting passion, enthusiasm, and for perhaps the first time ever: hope. As Ratna said to me recently,
“No one comes to our slums. You are the first to come, and through your visit you have dignified our village…I feel empowered because this is the first time I am hearing about the power of equality, of dignity, of love. Now, we want to work tirelessly from morning to night to bring hope, open hearts, and joy to our children. To teach them the meaning of life.”
Through CorStone’s GiveStart program, you can sponsor a young girl for just 65 cents per day ($20/month) — helping her to attend our Children’s Resiliency Program for Girls in India and begin to build skills that will empower her to change her life.
Aasha, Mina, and Ratna need your help. The girls in the slums need your help. And we need your help. Please donate.
May 7, 2011