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A hope revolution

Tearfund’s Christmas appeal is named ‘Renew Hope’ and seeks to bring about long-term generational change in vulnerable communities such as Bhiwandi in India. 

Words John Watson

Through the hills of Bhiwandi, a municipality just inland of Mumbai, runs a pipeline delivering water to Mumbai’s taps, showers, and swimming pools. It seems almost alien in the poor community; as alien as running taps with clean water. They get their water from a tanker that arrives every two weeks. People have lost their lives fighting over the precious liquid; so precious, a water mafia exists.

Amidst the poverty of Bhiwandi, corruption and exploitation thrive, and it’s not only the water and drug mafias taking advantage. In the municipality of around 700,000, the owners of the power loom factories pay meagre wages to men who stand for 12 hours a day. The fine dust created by the fabrics cause respiratory problems which drastically shortens their lives. There is also a common belief in and around Bhiwandi that the politicians keep the people poor intentionally in order to create problems they can solve, especially around election time.

At home sit the women disempowered and oppressed, not only by poverty but by a culture which treats them as second-class citizens.

The water pipeline running to Mumbai and Thane passes through the slum of Bhiwandi.

But there is hope. Through the un-driveable, litter-laden roads echoing with the deafening noise of the power loom factories strolls Poonam Nair and her team. They walk with an air of confidence and freedom not common to most of the women in Bhiwandi. It is not the water or loom factories they are interested in but the transformation of women and their families. They are staff members of Tearfund NZ’s charity partner ‘Saahasee’ meaning ‘courageous’ in Hindi and they’re the only NGO allowed in the closed-community long term. For the past fourteen years, they’ve been creating Self Help Groups in which around 20 women (they found women’s groups worked better than men’s) come together to pool their savings and take peer-to-peer loans. At first loans are taken to provide for immediate and emergency needs, but as time goes on more and more loans are taken to start small businesses or to help their husbands’ earning potential. They also address issues affecting the community such as health, sanitation and women’s rights.

“When women are educated, an entire nation can change,” Poonam says.

Sayra Sheik, once shy and fearful, now beams confidence and joy

Visiting women involved in Self Help Groups, it’s not the financial change in families that is most striking, but the transformation of the women themselves as a result of the empowerment and social support. Sayra Sheik is a case in point.

“I didn’t know what it was to leave the house, and was scared to go to Saahasee’s office just around the corner,” she says.

“I don’t know what it was in the office, but I felt very good. They taught me how to talk. Now my husband is always trying to quiet me,” she beams.

As she speaks of Saahasee and the changes in her life, her face is alive. Her husband, sitting beside her, can’t help but smile too as she recounts her experience with joy. If it weren’t for the loan she took out to start his taxi business, he would be dead from working in the loom factory. They agree their marriage has deepened as a result of the Self Help Group.

In houses across Bhiwandi, a revolution of hope is spreading. In one of the narrow alleys lives Vandana Mestry. Now a strong and confident woman, she has her mind set on solving a key issue in her community.

“Every day I go to the local politician’s house and take 20 to 25 women with me to demand clean water. The unity in my Self Help Group gives me strength. I have hope we will have water. One day, we will have water.”

Tearfund’s Christmas appeal is named ‘Renew Hope’ and seeks to bring about long-term generational change in vulnerable communities such as Bhiwandi. To donate to Tearfund’s ‘Renew Hope’ campaign visit Tearfund.org.nz/renew-hope.

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