I am a PhD student in the Department of Social Policy at the London School of Economics focusing on population and health. During 2011-2012, I spent a year in Indore conducting qualitative fieldwork exploring decision-making on maternal health care. I am immensely grateful to UHRC and their contacts who opened their doors so willingly to assist me with setting up my fieldwork, and who provided me with such insight into slum (basti) contexts in this region of India. While I was in Indore, I had the privilege of observing some of UHRC’s work with women’s self-help groups in Indore’s bastis. I found the determination of women’s groups’ members and the untiring efforts of UHRC staff truly inspiring.
A meeting with leading members of the women’s groups
Over the past decade or two, global media coverage has tended to focus on the success story of India’s booming economy, and the dynamism of its cities and metropolises. However, under the surface, there is a more complex story. Alongside the achievements, there are social disadvantages and prevailing power hierarchies that often prevent the poorest and most vulnerable from participating in society on an equal basis. In urban areas, many of the poor face difficulties in accessing secure livelihoods and are compelled to live in inadequate housing in neighbourhoods that are underserved. A lack of information and voice means that the poor often struggle to access basic services and social protection schemes to which they are entitled, and gender inequality makes women particularly vulnerable.
Residents having to wade through water to get in and out of their basti
These are the types of communities in which UHRC works. Their approach largely focuses on empowerment. Working with self-help women’s groups, they act as facilitators, helping women to develop the skills and confidence to challenge prevailing barriers. In this way, women themselves take charge in improving their own well-being as well as the well-being of their families and communities.
I heard so many remarkable stories from women’s group members in Indore. I heard stories of women who saved little by little through their self-help groups, invested wisely, and over time helped to achieve more secure livelihoods for their families. A particularly memorable story was of a group of women uniting to negotiate with authorities, and finally succeeding, to get a commitment to build a bridge that would provide access to their basti during the rainy season, without which residents had to wade through filthy water on a daily basis to get in and out. Group members also became accredited as Urban Social Health Activists and, in this role, shared health information and advice with their local communities, and also helped them to access the public health system.
Among my most enduring memories from observing UHRC’s programme were the changes I saw in individual women involved with the programme. I remember noting how quiet one women’s group member was in the first meeting I observed after arriving in Indore; she was too meek to speak in front of the group. When I saw this same woman again towards the end of the year, she was among the more assertive members of the group and had even taken on a leadership role.
Women’s group members performing and celebrating their achievements at a conclave (samellan)
Addressing poverty and wellbeing in urban areas is important. The locus of poverty in India has in the past been in rural areas, which seems to have been reflected in the focus of research and policy efforts. However, as the proportion of the country’s population living in urban areas increases over the next decades from an estimate of around 31% in the 2011 census, this situation is likely to change. Organisations such as UHRC that draw attention to the urban manifestation of issues such as poverty, health and well-being are becoming increasingly important.
As I move from fieldwork to immersing myself in analysis of the data, I reflect on the importance of grounding such social research in an empathic appreciation of the people and contexts at the heart of the data. I have certainly learned much through being in Indore- observing and listening to the stories of basti residents and people working with them- that I hope I can reflect in my current and future work.
I wish UHRC and the groups all the best with the journey ahead!
London School of Economics and Political Science