CHF India: Rising from the Bottom

CHF India: Rising from the Bottom

By Carol Garrison, Communications Writer in Pune, India

Sharda teaches girls who had to drop out of school.PHOTO: Sharda Pulawale teaches girls who had to drop out of school.

Sharda Pulawale knows her community inside and out. She knows every name and face. She knows when someone falls ill or loses a job. She also knows when there is a birth to be celebrated or a death to be mourned. It’s not that Sharda is nosey or likes to gossip. It is her responsibility to know these things. Sharda serves as a Resident Community Volunteer (RCV) working with a project called “Utthan.” The word utthan means “rising from the bottom” and this is exactly what Sharda is trying to help all of her neighbors and fellow residents do.

Sharda lives in a slum called Kasturba Vasahat in the city of Pune, India. She has worked as a community volunteer for more than eight years and has gotten to know the households she covers well. As a RCV her main responsibility is to inform other slum residents of the various government programs available to assist them. She performed her responsibilities for five years and was content in her role until the Utthan project was launched three years ago. She soon learned there was a lot more she was capable of in her role as a RCV and eagerly embraced her new set of responsibilities.

CHF initiated Utthan with the goal of empowering slum dwellers in decision making and community planning by encouraging resident involvement and participation. What makes Utthan innovative are the processes being used to achieve this goal. Working the government of Pune, CHF set up a GIS database system and working with a local partner, Mashal, helped to train RCVs to conduct socio-economic surveys in the slums where they live and work. At the city level, this data will be used to help make more informed decisions about services needed by slum residents. On the neighborhood level, the data is being used by the RCVs to develop “action plans” to address very specific needs within each community.

Sharda is one of 5,000 RCVs that serve in the slums. The RCV structure was originally created by the municipal government of Pune, but according to Sharda, she and the other RCVs were underutilized. Many RCVs did not know their roles and responsibilities and in some cases they did not have the communications skills needed to advocate on behalf of their communities. Through the training and capacity building provided by Utthan, Sharda has developed her communications and now feels confident enough to talk to local politicians about the needs of her community.

Reshma (foreground) and Varsha (background) and Varsha's son in class.PHOTO: Reshma (foreground) and Varsha (background) and Varsha's son in class.

One of the main issues identified in Sharda’s neighborhood was the high drop-out rate among girls. The data collection process revealed that many girls drop out of school before reaching standard 10 (equivalent to grade 12 in the US). Once this need was identified, Sharda and the other volunteers who work in her community developed an action plan which included establishing a classroom where girls could learn and study in order to pass the standard 10 exam. Sharda even volunteered to teach the classes herself. Initially 10 girls took advantage of the classes, now 40 girls regularly attend. Out of the first 10 girls, eight passed the exam and all have gone on to further their studies. The girls currently attending will take the exam next spring and they hope their outcomes are just as successful.

Reshma, 22 and Varsha, 20 are two of Sharda’s students. Both had to drop out of school when they got married. Reshma was 17 years old when she dropped out of standard 9. With her increased household responsibilities she no longer had time to study and when her daughter was born, she said she forgot about school altogether. Having classes offered in her own neighborhood and in the evening, has been very beneficial for her. If the classroom had been located further away or classes only offered during the day, she would not have been able to attend. She can even bring her daughter to class with her as many of the other young women do.

Varsha was already halfway through standard 10 when she dropped out. She has been attending classes for nine months now and says at first she was hesitant about attending the classes. Now even her husband has realized the value of her education and is encouraging her to study. Both young women are hoping that with higher levels of education they can obtain secure jobs and help improve the economic wellbeing of their families.

As for Sharda, she also has plans for her future. She recently enrolled in a program to earn a degree in social work. She wants to further her education so that she will be able to improve the educational opportunities for children in her community. She also has a larger vision for her community and it involves rising from the bottom. She wants Kasturba to be known as a “community” rather than a “slum.” And she wants to help others in her community to think about themselves in a new light. “Even slum people should have dreams and that is my vision.”