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C h a p t e r 6 Are Women Victims, or Are They Warriors? Sheela Patel The health hazards posed by living in a slum are by now well documented : From quality of housing to access to clean water, the urban poor are highly vulnerable to a number of health problems, many of which affect women disproportionately. Women and their survival strategies form the foundation of how poor communities subsist in cities, yet most programs do not truly address their needs or make use of their resources. Most urban health interventions simply provide short-term fixes and do not build women’s capabilities to deal with the ongoing issues with which they struggle on a daily basis. If a woman is given a prescription for medicine to alleviate her cough yet continues to spend much of her day in a tiny shack inhaling fumes from her cooking stove and from the vehicles speeding past outside, she will continue to have respiratory trouble. If she is instructed on how to cook healthy meals for her family yet cannot afford to buy enough food, her children will continue to suffer from malnourishment. If she is educated about the importance of sanitation but has no access to clean water, her family will continue to contract gastrointestinal disease. Simply seeking to “manage poverty”—to make the existing system work better for marginalized people—may help a few in the short term. Yet transformation of the lives of the poor is a marathon rather than a 100-meter dash. To truly improve health outcomes for poor communities in urban areas, and particularly for poor women, development and health professionals must work with communities to address the underlying issues of habitat and environment that play a major role in well-being. Despite all the challenges facing them, women are not simply waiting for help to arrive. Rather, women in urban communities across India and dozens of other countries are already taking steps to address the problems presented by their habitats. They are saving money for 94 Sheela Patel new and improved houses, negotiating with officials for access to water and electricity, and even building their own community toilet blocks. Though women are often treated as victims, they are warriors. It is simply a question of lighting their fire. The Alliance: SPARC, Mahila Milan, and NSDF The Society for Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) is a nongovernmental organization (NGO) that was established in Mumbai in 1984 by a group of professionals who sought to explore new ways of working with the urban poor. SPARC’s initial work in Mumbai was with pavement dwellers and focused specifically on women. SPARC supported pavement women in forming a network of neighborhood collectives called Mahila Milan—Hindi for “women together.” These collectives provided a means for women to build their confidence while addressing tangible problems in their lives. In 1986, the National Slum Dwellers Federation (NSDF), which at that time was a federation of slum community leaders from eight cities in India, sought an alliance with these newly emerging neighborhood collectives in Mumbai. The NSDF was addressing issues of eviction and seeking to build and develop a sense of identity for slum and pavement dwellers in the city. The NSDF explored a strategy to provide access to city services and resources by pavement dwellers. SPARC’s role has been mainly one of assistance to NSDF and Mahila Milan in building their leadership by providing organizational outreach , facilitating the exploration of new strategies and activities, and opening spaces for the organizations of the poor to begin dialogue (and hopefully partnerships) with various levels of government to address issues of poverty. NSDF and Mahila Milan have developed leaders who undertake these activities on an ongoing basis. As the poor have established their needs and priorities, SPARC has sought to support the poor in their transformation from passive beneficiaries and supplicants to active participants in changing their own life situations, acting as a bridge between the formal and informal world in the dialogue on development priorities. NSDF and Mahila Milan groups meet regularly and participate in frequent exchange visits with groups in other cities, states, and even countries to learn about one another’s strategies and approaches. When a local federation devises new solutions to address a problem, it shares them with the rest of the alliance. This strategy builds confidence by showing local groups that change is possible and helps the poor use pro- Are Women Victims, or Are They Warriors...


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MARC Record
Launched on MUSE
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