How Utkarsha pushed past gender discrimination toward her dream

Photo by Abbey Marshall

If Utkarsha Mahadeshwar followed suit of the rest of the girls from her slum community of Dharavi, she would’ve been married by age 13 and had a baby by now.

Instead, the 16-year-old is about to start junior college at Ruparel College, one of the top universities in Mumbai.

“Gender inequality is a huge problem in my community,” Utkarsha said. “After age nine, we’re not supposed to play with boys or even play outside. I would have neighbors yell at me when I would try to play.”

People in Utkarsha’s family had written her off because of her poverty and gender. Utkarsha’s relatives did not speak to her family because they were so poor in comparison to the rest of her family.

Utkarsha found her saving grace in Magic Bus, which provided her the hope to one day break out of poverty.

In weekly Magic Bus sessions, she interacted with both boys and girls her age and was taught lessons around the importance of health, education and gender equality. Around the time of puberty, Utkarsha and her peers were taught sessions around reproductive and sexual health, which Utkarsha claimed was “extremely helpful.”

“Mothers here don’t like to discuss private things such as periods or pads,” said Utkarsha’s mother, Pramila. “I even learned a lot of things I didn’t know through Utkarsha. I am very thankful for that.”

Many girls in Dharavi drop out of school after getting married, or if they go to school, they do not continue past 10th grade. Not only has Utkarsha flourished in school, but she plans to pursue a Master’s in Business Administration. In her spare time, she tutors her neighbors and helps her 12-year-old brother with his studies.

Utkarsha’s education has been fostered through Magic Bus, and her parents are forever grateful. Her mother was a high school dropout, and her father did not pass the  12th grade. He now works in a small restaurant.

“Since I dropped out, I am a housewife.” Pramila said. “I do not want Utkarsha to repeat my mistake. I want her to complete her education and help other children in our community.”

Her outstanding performance on the 10th grade exam made everyone sit up and take notice. She was invited to the United States last year for a program funded by the U.S. State Department because of her leadership skills and academic success.

“That was the proudest moment of my entire life,” Pramila said.

Word of Utkarsha’s high test score and her trip to the United States travelled quickly through the Dharavi community, and soonafter, Utkarsha was paid an unexpected visit.

“My cousin and his son, who is in the medical field, came to our home,” Pramila said. “I never expected they would visit. They didn’t care about us before because we were poor. But they came and they were so proud of her. They blessed her.”

Since the visit, Utkarsha has kept in close contact with her uncle, who is mentoring her while she prepares for junior college.

Utkarsha was recently selected to be a Magic Bus Community Youth Leader in Dharavi. She is now excited to begin running Magic Bus sessions for children just like her and making a change within her community.

“Before Magic Bus, she was so shy,” Pramila said. “Now because of all the interaction and all the learnings through Magic Bus, she has built confidence and is so smart. I am very proud of her.”

Utkarsha is one simple story of change within Magic Bus participants. She is one of nearly half a million children in India in Magic Bus programs who is working toward her dreams of continue her education and breaking out of the poverty cycle.

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

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11-year-old stands up against domestic violence in Bombay Port Trust

Photo by Abbey Marshall

Nazifa Kachi was playing with her friends in Bombay Port Trust when she noticed something odd about her neighbor.

“Her whole eyes were swollen,” she said. “She told me that her husband and his family beat her up with a belt. I tried to tell her to file a police case, but she just ran away the next day.”

That wasn’t the first time Nazifa saw women in her community beaten and bruised by their husbands. Even as an 11-year-old, she is no stranger to the horrors of domestic violence because it was right in her own community.

BPT is a community located along the coastline of Mumbai. Nearly 100,000 families live on the land in less than humane conditions. Since BPT is an illegal slum, residents are not provided with basic necessities like water and electricity and have to pay 50 to 200 times more for inconsistent access to those amenities than more affluent citizens (Subbaraman, 2015). The possibility of the government destroying the shanties looms over residents every day, and demolition in some areas has already begun.

BPT’s problems don’t stop there. Social issues and inequality run rampant through the community. Mumbai has seen a 354 percent increase in rapes since 2011, many of those taking place with alarming regularity in slums like BPT (Hafeez, 2016). Because of this, parents have to be very careful about letting their daughters leave the home for short errands or playdates with friends. Even a trek to school can be dangerous.

Nazifa’s family isn’t originally from BPT. They migrated from a nearby village for her father to work in the naval port. When asked if she liked her community, she was quick to shake her head and say “no.”

“I don’t like that the teenage boys and men use drugs and sexually harass women,” she said. “I want to make a change and tell people drugs and alcohol are bad and involve police, because it leads to worse things. Violence and fights happen a lot here.”

Since her parents and her four-month-old brother now call BPT home, Nazifa is determined to make a difference.

Nazifa has been a Magic Bus participant for four years and is in fifth grade. Every week, she and her friends attend Magic Bus sessions delivered by mentors from her same community.

“When Nazifa enrolled, she was silent and shy,” said Shanti Ravi, the BPT Magic Bus community coordinator. “Now she is taking initiative for issues in the community she cares about. I’m amazed. She’s so young and already doing this.”

Nazifa’s mentors are her favorite part about Magic Bus, and she said they have been helpful on her journey for justice. Their job is to deliver important sessions to participants such as the importance of health and gender equality, but they also helped Nazifa. She said after she complained to them about the violence in the community, Magic Bus staff raised awareness to local families and children that domestic violence is a dehumanizing and criminal offense in India.

“In the sessions, Nazifa reflects those lessons and wants quick action,” Ravi said.

Magic Bus also takes participants to the local police station, where they interact with officers. Nazifa befriended one of the officers and got their phone number in case she saw another incident of domestic violence.

“She is the only girl around here that does this kind of thing,” Ravi said.

Nazifa has big dreams for the future: both for her community and personally. She aspires to have a career in the medical field and will be the first in her family to go to college. Her ultimate goal, she said, is to help those around her.

“When I’m a doctor I will help these women,” she said. “For now, I will do what I can. I want to make sure they’re okay and I want people here to be happy.”

 

Hafeez, M. (2016). Nearly 300% spike in rapes in Mumbai since 2011. [online] The Times of India. Available at: http://timesofindia.indiatimes.com/city/mumbai/Nearly-300-spike-in-rapes-in-city-since-11/articleshow/55424613.cms

Subbaraman, R. (2015). The city’s outcasts. [online] The Indian Express. Available at: http://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/the-citys-outcasts/

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

From Magic Bus participant to mentor, one Dharavi girl learns to be a leader

Photo by Abbey Marshall

Being born into a slum community in India as a female is not very promising of a hopeful future. 17-year-old Komal Narayankar has been surrounded by people her whole life telling her “no” because she will be nothing more than a housewife.

But Komal is determined to prove them wrong.

Komal joined Magic Bus eight years ago as an extremely shy child. Very quickly, she blossomed into an enthusiastic young woman thrilled about her future. She would show up to Magic Bus sessions ready to participate and learn something new.

“I love the guidance from my mentors,” Komal said. “They were always ready to help and motivate me to do well for myself and my community.”

When she graduated from the program, she took on the role of a Magic Bus Community Youth Leader to help other kids in her community, Dharavi. She sets an example that they too can aspire for more.

As a female, however, Komal faces significant obstacles from those around her — including some family members.

“My aunt used to ask why I joined Magic Bus because I was a girl and I was only going to be a housewife,” she said. “But my mom and dad supported me and stopped her.”

Komal seeks out families who don’t allow their daughters to attend Magic Bus sessions and counsels them on why they should let their girls play and learn.

“I always use my own family as an example,” she said. “My older sister never had Magic Bus, and she’s very shy and never leaves the house. But me, I am confident and fearless.”

Komal said she is lucky to have parents who are very supportive of her. Her father has always valued education. He was the top of his class in 10th grade, but could not continue his education in college because he couldn’t pay his tuition.

Her family is not wealthy by any means. All six of them sleep on the crowded floor of their home, which floods up to their knees during monsoon season. They do not have a tap and only have 10 minutes a day to fill up water from the community spout for their entire family.

Her father works as a day laborer only getting about four to five jobs a year, while her mother sells snacks on the local train. They pour all the money they save into Komal’s junior college fees.

“I always want to help her and never want her to stop pursuing her dreams,” her dad said, beaming over his daughter. “I am so proud of her.”

Komal is studying business at Chetna College in Bandra with the full support of her family and Magic Bus.

“My parents probably love Magic Bus more than I do,” Komal joked. “We are all really happy for what it’s done for me and for the kids here.”

Komal is on her way to completing college and landing a job in the formal sector in India, where she will hopefully be able to give back what her parents have given her.

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

Magic Bus inspires Dharavi girl to use health and education to mentor youth

It is not common for girls in Dharavi, a slum community in Mumbai, to interact or play outside as they enter adolescence.

Sixteen-year-old Harshali Koli is breaking the mold. She wants to be a physical education teacher.

Ever since joining Magic Bus eight years ago, Harshali has developed a passion for health and education. The weekly activity-based sessions gave her an opportunity to play and learn with her peers — girls and boys.

“I loved all the activities in Magic Bus,” she said. “In my community, no one cares about you outside of your family but with Magic Bus, there was so much friendliness and motivation from my mentors.”

Although Harshali’s mother was always supportive of her involvement in Magic Bus, her father, a railway worker, was very much against it.

“He refused to let her play sports and attend Magic Bus sessions because she’s a girl,” her mother, Vaijanta, said. “But then she received a scholarship to attend a leadership academy in  the U.S., which was funded by the U.S. State Department, and he changed his mind realizing his daughter had potential.”

Harshali knew she had athletic talent, and she decided to use it for good by mentoring youth in her community about the benefits of health, hygiene and physical exercise.

“I was talking to some children and found a girl who wasn’t allowed by her parents to play with boys,” Harshali said. “I spent hours talking to her parents. We talked about the good things that could come out of her playing with other kids and eventually convinced her parents to let her play.”

From there, Harshali created a supervised program to play sports and games with the children in her community. She really liked playing with the kids, but in terms of a career, she had always been set on getting a traditional office job like many of her friends.

“I wanted to go into business, but I wasn’t very good at math,” Harshali said.

Her older brother helped her realize she can make a career out of her passion. She will start junior college in 2018 and plans to study physical education.

Harshali will be part of the 87 percent of youth in college in India, and all because Magic Bus helped her realize and achieve her dream.

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

From small village to big city: How Diksha made a new life in Mumbai

Diksha Singh had no idea of the life ahead of her when she moved to Mumbai from a small village in Uttar Pradesh.

Although she was born in Mumbai, Diksha’s mother developed severe lung and heart issues and her parents sent her as a baby to live with her maternal grandmother halfway across the country.

She finished 10th grade in a government school and then reunited with her family in Mumbai to attend junior college. She said she was terrified of the big city, and she was dismayed to find unsavory living conditions in Dharavi, one of the biggest slum communities in Mumbai. Diksha and five other family members, including her grandmother and uncle, share a one room home that also serves as the kitchen and bedroom.

“I don’t want to live in Dharavi,” she said. “It’s so crowded and dirty and girls aren’t treated well.”

Diksha also had a difficult time in junior college, where she was treated poorly because of her background.

“I was picked on a lot by my classmates because I was from the countryside,” she said. “I used to cry a lot. I wanted to go home where I had friends.”

On top of it all, Diksha’s family was facing a financial crisis, and she felt like she needed to get a job immediately to help. After a year of searching, she was still turning up empty handed.

Discouraged, Diksha felt like she had very little options left, until she met a friend who introduced her to Magic Bus. Her friend went to the Magic Bus Livelihood Center in Dharavi for a three month program, taking practical courses such as computer skills, English literacy and learning how to master an interview.

“At first I was really quiet,” she said. “Within two weeks, I became really comfortable with the people there.”

In addition to valuable social interactions, Diksha said she was groomed for interviews, which was one of the biggest challenges for her in attaining a job.

“As a woman in India, you’re taught to avoid,” she said. “You’re not supposed to look a man in the eye because you might get harassed. I learned at the Center that I need to maintain eye contact in interviews. That was helpful.”

Magic Bus arranged a job interview at Fidelity National Information Services (FIS), a financial company, where Diksha was selected as a data entry employee. At 20 years old, Diksha is thrilled to have her first job, where she works 10 hours a day for about $150 a month.

“When I got my first salary, I bought presents for everyone in my family,” she said. “I am extremely happy and proud because I am finally realizing my dream of being independent.”

Originally produced for Magic Bus.

Magic Bus encourages Delhi girl to get job despite family pressures

When Nazmeen was born, her life was laid out for her: learn how to cook, get married and have children. She wasn’t given the option of anything more — but despite her background, she fought for independence and education.

When she was very young, Nazmeen’s family migrated from their impoverished village, Bihar, in search of better opportunities in Delhi. Her father found work, but only as an ice cream vendor with very little income. As a result, the family of five lived in Anand Parvat, a Delhi slum cluster, going days at a time without food because her father spent most of his income on alcohol and gambling.

Nazmeen’s mother made the difficult decision to leave her husband, who was not fostering a safe or healthy environment for their four children, and began working as a maid. Nazmeen’s eldest siblings had to drop out to help earn money for the family.

Nazmeen enrolled in school when she was six. The older she got, she began to witness her mother’s financial burdens and felt pressure to drop out to contribute to the family wages.

“It would leave me with a biting sense of guilt,” she said. “I would console myself by saying that a time would come when I would support her better with better pay and working conditions.”

Despite her success in primary school, she knew her mother would not allow her to continue her education in junior college. Instead, her mother asked her to learn skills such as sewing to become a “suitable bride.”

“My family was worried I would become ‘too educated’ to get any groom,” she said.

Without telling her family, Nazmeen used the money in her bank account from a government scholarship to fund courses at Delhi University. Her secret was short-lived, however, when her mother asked to use money from her bank and found the money was gone. Her mother was very angry and upset.

Soonafter, Nazmeen was thrown a lifeline by Magic Bus, which recently began programming in her area. She was offered the opportunity to become a Community Youth Leader to teach children in her community the importance of education through the Magic Bus activity-based curriculum.

“I loved the idea of Magic Bus,” she said. “I thought I could make use of my free time and teach children.”

Despite her passion for the project, her family forbade her from doing the work she cared about because both boys and girls were participating.

Discouraged, Nazmeen resigned from the position, but stayed in touch with Magic Bus staff who introduced her to Magic Bus’s Livelihood Center in 2015. Magic Bus’s Livelihood Program provides classes for young adults such as life skills, computer lessons and English literacy, but Nazmeen quickly became exhausted after a few months.

“I knew I wouldn’t be allowed to have a job,” she said. “I knew my family was looking for a groom for me.”

Nazmeen shared her fears with Magic Bus staff, who went to her home and negotiated with her mother to allow her to have a job because she would be independent and could contribute to the household income.

“I have never received such support from anyone in my life,” she said.

As a result, Nazmeen got her first job at a bank, making about $155 a month. Her mother was finally happy with her daughter’s achievements, as Nazmeen was able to give a portion of her salary to support her mother and siblings.

Nazmeen is one of the 400,000 youth enrolled in Magic Bus programming across India. Because of the support of Magic Bus staff, Nazmeen was able to break out of the cyclical expectations of her family and community and follow her dreams.

This story was rewritten and adapted for a U.S. audience from a previous report in 2016.