The Hudson meets Yamuna:  Young women in conversation on Gender, Health and Sanitation


Just as Delhi is getting ready to welcome the winter chill a bunch of young master’s students from Princeton University in the USA, specializing in International Development and Public Policy, arrives here to examine public service delivery in slums and informal settlements in Delhi. At one level, the group wanted to examine how the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board (DUSIB), the Official Agency, has succeeded in bettering service delivery and addressing failures; at the other, the group wanted to engage with the work of NGOs like the Centre for Advocacy and Research (CFAR) to gauge community perspectives and understand how existing inter-sectionality between gender, habitat and class influence access to sanitation service.

The students came with a set of questions to first initiate a conversation and find common grounds between the US and India in relation to water, hygiene and sanitation and, second, how the government and associated stakeholders impact quality and the sustainability of any change they succeed in catalyzing. They were also curious to know how young women in this part of the world lead their life, their dreams and aspirations and their take on development and match it to their own. It was thus a process of learning and unlearning, meeting and networking which unfurled during a day-long visit across various informal settlements in Delhi.

In total the group was scheduled to visit four informal settlements where the CFAR is presently working to assess how the community management committee (CMC) was managing the sanitation services at the settlement level. Four young women, one from the neighboring country, Nepal, presently studying at Princeton, were given a warm welcome by the community. While welcoming the group, Jyoti, a member of young adolescent group said,

 “We are now used to hosting visitors to our settlement. We feel good talking about our journey and the work that we are doing at community level. As kids, we were told that guest should be treated like divine beings. This is something deeply embedded in our culture.”- Ms. Jyoti, Rajasthani Camp

The world’s two strongest democracies yet so uniquely similar! It was really heartening to see that at the people-to-people level we are so alike. While Anna, a young American Irish girl shared her story of how her grandmother, a midwife, wanted her children and grandchildren to go to school and learn as she couldn’t do that in her life time, young adolescents of the Rajasthani Camp felt it to be their own journey where many are the first generation-school-going members of the family.

Mushkan, for instance, brought out how she had to negotiate her way to sustain her place in the school, show results every time to be able to continue with higher education, involve in community program and evolve as a strong and independent individual.

 “ I am the only girl in my family  who has gone to college. Usually girls in my family get married early but I was adamant that I would continue my higher education, do a job and then think of marriage. Ever since I have started working for CFAR and spreading awareness on issues related to hygiene and sanitation, I feel special; I feel even I am doing something right and contribution towards my community.”- Mushkan, Rajasthani Camp

Similar experiences unfolded when young girls of two diverse cultures found similarities. Karina, another student from Princeton said, ‘Though at the outset it might look like everything is perfect in the US, being one of the most powerful nations of the world, looking a little deeper, one will find unfathomable inequalities at the level of race, gender, provisions and access to services, something which is a global reality.’

These are some eye-opening facts for the young women here who otherwise mostly live with the notion that everything is perfect in the West. So when Karina was talking about apartheid and racial inequality in the US, Soni, Mushkan, Pooja and Jyoti were relating it to caste and class inequality in their community. When Karla was talking of gender stereotypes and taboos related to women’s mobility in Latin America, girls and women here were relating it with their own life experiences – rules of mobility different for boys and girls, restriction during periods, rules of communication between genders and so on.

The second camp scheduled for visit was the I.G. camp at Ashram which displayed a very strong community involvement in maintaining 84 seats CTC. It was not an easy journey, highlighted Mr. Muslim Khan, a local leader and a supporter of community initiative program brought out the initial struggle of ensuring proper management of the government provisions. As he was unfolding the progress of sanitation program in his area and how the CMC model enhanced service provisions, I couldn’t stop relating his experiences as his own journey of demystifying long-standing gender stereotypes and patriarchal hegemony. Muslim Khan to me emerged as a strong individual who was ready to accept the world beyond mere binaries. Silently I wished we had more Muslim Khans amongst us for the creation of a just and egalitarian world!
Community Toilet Complex, New Sanjay Camp-Ashram

The New Sanjay camp and the Janta Jivan camp displayed an impressive journey of community intervention. While in Janta Jivan, CMC members succeeded in establishing a strong working relation with the department; the New Sanjay camp displayed groundbreaking results by providing nutritional supplement to the expectant mother and their new born in the absence of an Anganwadi, or Childcare facility, in the area. These initiatives needs to be highlighted as the system evolved out of the CMC member’s initiative in the area that ensured that the expectant mother and the new born are not denied their right to nutrition.

Community Management Committee, New Sanjay Camp-Okhla

So what transpired of this visit is that though the experiences of two countries in relation to policies and programs are very different, the issues do overlap. While the US may not experience life impairing issues related to housing, sanitation, health and hygiene, a large number of ethnic and marginalized communities are still denied their basic rights just like their counterparts in India. Both the countries deal with huge populations- one due to increasing number of immigrants in the country for better economic profile and the other due to greater and greater concentration of the poor in major cities. Both face challenges while working with the state, both experience gender, social and economic inequality in varied degrees. Both nations have their share of pollution and solid waste management issues and the list goes on and on.

But it is the world view that separates the two nations. As young women of  two countries were conversing with each other on various issues, ranging from cultural constructs and social contracts and challenges of accessing the bare necessities of life; to me it was like step sisters talking about the same thing from two different perspectives. So while one young American compared the Jhuggi Jhopdis – the informal settlements – with the institutionalized provisions for the poor and homeless in the US and felt that the quality of life could be improved by converting these settlements into high-rise glass buildings like the developed nations of the world; her sisters here in these settlements explained how that’s not what they are aiming to achieve when they say that they want an improved and quality life. She said that the aim is to be with people, live with them and grow; it’s about creating a just world across a horizontal axis unlike most of the developed nations who are advocating for vertical ghettoes, keeping the poor and the marginalized into match box apartments, separated from its own tribe. While for the white sisters this was the indicator of development, for the brown ones, it was about being the victim of capitalism and alienation. In other words, the perceived difference could be located in the perceived notion of habitat. For us, the concept of home moves beyond the mere four walls that we occupy and hence all our programs and policies are attempted towards fulfilling the interest of the community.

It was heartening to see that while we had differences of opinion, we also knew the reason for such differences. The difference was not definitely at the level of the cause but at the level of addressing the issue and this was due to our dispersed locations. As an end note I can only say that while we both want to create a much healthier and an egalitarian world, it’s a difficult wish and an equally difficult task to come up with a magic solution. But as a step towards realizing our goals, what we can do is increase collaboration and conversation, build partnership, undertake skill building exercise, strengthen collective, engage and replicate the best practices.

By:  Sutapa Majumdar( PhD),






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