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Dharavi girls get a make over

Dec 17, 2008

In Asia's largest slum, the Kishori project is introducing young girls to reproductive healthcare, pregnancy care, HIV/AIDS and more. As added inducement, low cost trainings in computers and tailoring are drawing them to the centre for a chance to earn and save money.

Look at your face. You are a girl. Stay at home. Shocking as it may sound, these harsh words reverberate in millions of homes across India everyday.

They have also been used as the opening lines for a CD—Less no more, connecting to the youth—produced by the Kishori project, an adolescent empowerment programme run in Asia’s largest slum, Dharavi.

The CD is circulated for spreading awareness about the cause. Until a few years back, the young girls of Dharavi were no strangers to such retorts, but things have changed since the initiation of the Kishori project.

"I enjoy coming here to learn the beautician’s course. Not only do I get to learn but I also get to spend time with my friends," chirps Rubina Sheikh (18).

"After completing class VIII, I stopped going to school. Instead of sitting at home and wasting my time, my mother asked me to join tailoring classes here. I actually want to learn computers. I will do it later," says Nilofer (15).

Then there are Pushpa Nadar, Amina, Shama and several others, who just for a few hours every day forget to feel guilty about being born female, when they attend their daily classes run by the Kishori project conducted on the third floor of the Lokmanya Tilak Municipal Hospital (Chota Sion Hospital) located amidst the squalor of the Dharavi slums.

Explains Dr Duru Shah, a gynaecologist and the main force behind the project: "Giving vocational training was a lure to get these girls to our centre. We wanted to impart reproductive education to them. It is sad that many girls don’t know anything about their bodies and the changes that take place from time to time. It is essential for every girl to know her reproductive cycle."

Reproductive education

Shah is the head of Gynaecworld, an assisted fertility clinic located at Kemp’s Corner in Mumbai, and also a former president of the Federation of Gynaecologist Society of India (FOGSI).

In fact, the project is an initiative of FOGSI, started in 2001 by Shah, the then joint secretary of the association. Shah got interested in the project when she had the opportunity to study pre-natal deaths in India. To her horror, she discovered that a majority of the girls and women, regardless of economic status, religion and region, were pathetically unaware of reproductive healthcare.

"Surprisingly, even adolescent girls from the higher income groups were anaemic as they didn't know the right food habits. They didn't understand the right hygiene and care to be taken during menstruation or pregnancy," recalls Shah.

These findings prompted her to start the 'growing up' programme for school children, with the assistance of FOGSI and Johnson and Johnson. Incidentally, through this programme, five million school children across the country have benefited so far.

However, while working on the programme, Shah realised that 'growing up' was only reaching out to children in schools. What about the millions from below-the-poverty-line (BPL) families, who have never been to school? So, to introduce such girls to the best practices in healthcare and hygiene, Shah initiated the Kishori project.

With the help of a doctor friend in UNICEF, who promised to provide all the necessary educational material, Shah zeroed in on establishing a centre in the Dharavi slum.

Sion Hospital, Johnson and Johnson, Sneha, an NGO, and even the Integrated Child Development Scheme (ICDS), joined in. Chota Sion Hospital chipped in by giving its premises to run the centre.

"Since sex is a taboo subject in India, we decided to term it reproductive education. In fact, I feel even the government should use this term instead of ‘sex education’, which bring out extreme reactions from people who don’t know anything about it," comments Shah.

Even today, the young girls, who come clad in burkas at the centre, become tongue-tied when asked about what they have learnt. They look to project manager Bharati Khangadle, who is in her early 30s, an MSW in-charge of the centre, to act as their spokesperson.

"Even when the doctors come here to talk to them along with audio-visual educational material, the girls neither talk nor ask any questions. However, they talk freely with me because I am with them throughout the day. I pass on all their queries to the visiting doctors and, based on their responses, the discussions take place," says Khangadle.

The health sessions are conducted twice a month, and subjects ranging from menstruation and use of contraceptives, to care during pregnancy and HIV/AIDS are discussed at length.

Learning skills

But it is the low-cost vocational courses on offer that get the girls to actually join these discussions in the first place. Courses on mehendi tattooing (Rs 300 for six weeks), tailoring (Rs 550 for six months), beauty therapy (Rs 500 for three months) and basic computer knowledge (Rs 120 per month) are on offer.

At any given time, there are 50 to 60 girls, between the age group of 14 and 30 years, at the centre. They are divided into two batches everyday, with around 30 girls in a batch. After that, they are further segregated according to the courses they have opted for.

The tailoring class has the maximum number of students, followed by mehendi art and then make-up. The girls spend about three to four hours daily at the centre, which is open from 11 am to 4.30 pm. Of course, their mothers are glad that the girls have found a fruitful way of "passing time".

Sheila Donde, who has been teaching tailoring, embroidery and mehendi-tattooing for a couple of years now, admits that many students haven't used the education to earn a livelihood, as their families refuse to let them take up jobs. But she adds: "So far more than 1,000 girls have availed of these low-cost courses."

Amina Bano (20), who works as a tailor from home, is one girl who has made good use of her training. She earns over Rs 1,200 a month. "During festivals, my income goes up to Rs 3,000," she says with pride. But Amina, who is single, isn’t sure whether she will be able to put her training to use after her marriage. "I don’t know if I would be allowed to earn a living after I get married," she shrugs nonchalantly.

"Even if they don’t earn their livelihoods, at least they can save money by tailoring their own clothes," observes Sunita Gambre, who has been teaching sewing since the inception of the project.

"Many of them want to learn computers as they then can work in offices. But at present we only have a few computers. So we can admit only five girls at a time. We conduct two sessions every day," explains Kranti Gangurde (22), an office assistant and computer trainer.

"The fees we charge are not enough to run the project. So, we organise fund-raising events like fashion shows. I also ask my patients to extend financial support," says Shah.

But the true impact of the project may be gauged by the fact that recently some of the students got together and managed to prevent the parents of three under 18 women from getting them married. The project administrators regard this as their first victory and evidence that their courses in reproductive education are now beginning to have an impact.

This article was originally published by Womens' Feature Service.

Source : The Tribune
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