The Women of Dharavi

The Women of Dharavi

NYUAD students in conversation with the Women of Dharavi

New to Mumbai, a group of students from NYU-Abu Dhabi researched topics that captivated their interest. The workshop was a part of the Engineers for Social Impact program and over 10 days, the students immersed themselves in the homegrown neighbourhood of Dharavi and delved into the lives of its inhabitants. 

During this process, one group of students got an opportunity to meet local women from varied socio-economic backgrounds like social activists, community leaders and street vendors. Facilitated by the urbz team, they were able to have insightful conversations with them. Covering a lot of ground, the conversations ranged from their domestic lives, jobs, family histories and the triumphs and hardships they had endured. Some were the sole breadwinners in their families and took up odd jobs, very few of them were formally educated. Most of them worked in small factories making bags, cutting threads or as caregivers, cooks and domestic helpers. The women’s faces lit up when they spoke about their motivation to negotiate life's challenges. For most, it was the love of their children and the aspirations they had for them. 


Two women in the community really captivated the students.

One was the exuberant and spirited Aatma Devi, who came to Mumbai from Uttar Pradesh (a northern province of India). She welcomed the students at her one-room home and unreservedly spoke with them for hours. She had a tough life, to say the least. Married off at 14, She found her new home on the marshy banks of the Mithi River, struggling to stay dry and secure a home made of bamboo and jute bags. These were the modest beginnings of Rajiv Gandhi Nagar, a homegrown neighbourhood of Dharavi. Here, she made the acquaintance of Nitin More, founder of LEARN, an organisation that works to teach women new skills and support them to uplift themselves. She spoke of him fondly and said he encouraged her to liberate themselves from a prohibitively conservative family and work to help other women. Today, Aatma Devi works with a network of three thousand women across Maharashtra who support each other on the many issues they face. They conduct door-to-door surveys to inquire about the status of women in households and organise various classes for young girls to have better opportunities. The students were deeply impressed by her grit. 


Another remarkable woman leader is the young and determined Samya Korde. 

A local politician who is leading the work of the Dharavi Foundation. She plays an active role in The Workers and Peasants Party and is poised to enter politics to bring about a systemic change. Born and raised in Dharavi and a graduate of Political Science, she aspires to address local issues at the grassroots by collaborating with women like Aatma Devi who share a common vision for the community. 


The students discovered the most pressing concern for many women was the lack of childcare services like neighbourhood creches, or the access to babysitters. This made it very tiring for them to juggle their roles as mothers and breadwinners. As a possible solution, the students wanted to create a Childcare App. that could allow parents with limited income to avail of babysitting services. These services could be offered by volunteers for a subsidised fee. Most women or parents could not afford to pay more than Rs.1000/month for such a service. In many cases, even this was unaffordable. 

They spoke to several NGOs and Trustees of local schools to understand if the App. could locate its childcare services on their premises. It turned out that arriving at solutions would be far more complex than they had imagined. As their time in Mumbai ended, they left, humbled and motivated to continue working on ideas that could help engineer a lasting social impact.