In February 2019 I spent six weeks in Chennai, a city in the south of India, on the Coromandel Coast in the Bay of Bengal. I took part in a voluntary program by the NGO Cheer which was orientated towards reducing inequalities for women and people of the LGBTQ+ community. These weeks were filled with constant impressions and perceptions. In this essay, I will share the experiences I had with women in the slum called “Anna Salai”, Chennai.
It was quite early when I arrived. There was almost no one on the streets. A cow walked along a side road. The figure meager was looking for something to eat. Dogs were running across the street. I continued walking and scanned my surroundings. It seemed as if someone had tried to stack several tiny sheds or cabins together. It reminded me of one of those ramshackle Lego constructions I used to build when I was in kindergarten. The walls of the house were painted in washed-out colors and some steel sheets formed the roof of the building. I spotted one of these varicolored mural reliefs of Hindu divinities here and there. The typical smell of Masala Dosa lingered in the air – the traditional South Indian breakfast dish – mixing with the smell of exhaust gas. A few women were sitting in front of their house, preparing and cooking breakfast for their families or selling it for a few rupees to passers-by.
I stopped in front of a woman, bought a Dosa and asked for the way to Siragu, which is an initiative of Acid Survivors and a Woman Welfare Foundation located in one of the slums in Chennai. That day, I would be organizing a community event with the focus on gender equality and reducing inequalities for women who live in this slum in Chennai. This women empowerment workshop was part of my internship at the NGO Cheer, which aims to establish higher social and economic stability for women and the LGBTQ+ community in Chennai. Siragu offered me their building as venue for the event. And so, after weeks of pre-arrangements, after organizing donations to realize the workshop, after working on a thought-out program, I was standing in front of the building and asked myself: “What am I going to tell these women? I barely know anything about living in the slums and in a few hours, I will be standing in front of these women, telling them how to be more independent.” It seemed so ridiculous to me all of a sudden.
When I decided to take part in the program, I was full of ideas on how to make an impact and brighten up lives in this developing country. I realized quickly that the European lifestyle and the European way of how to handle problems is not the key to the challenges in India. You simply cannot apply the system of Europe to India. Although meaning well, it will not be altruistic Europeans who will safe India or any other developing country from its challenges. Some of the programs in developing countries are designed for curious high-school graduates who are hungry to see the world and have the desire to help. This, however, may drive the country into an even more dependent position. There are indisputably several initiatives and programs that cause reform. However, it strongly depends on the organization that operates the program, the type of project, as well as the sort of activities the interns are performing. In my point of view, there is a huge difference between teaching someone how to do something by themselves and doing it for them. Why fly to Uganda and help build a school when there is such a high unemployment rate and, I believe, many residents would be more than happy to be employed as workers? As privileged Europeans and North Americans we pay for these programs, providing them with motivated workers at no expense and enough money to realize even more projects. However, this is not a sustainable solution to the deep-rooted issues of such countries and may lead them into even stronger subjection.
With all of these thoughts in my mind, I tried to prepare for the workshop and thought about ways of how to lead the event to a positive outcome for my target group. One by one, some women arrived and we started the day by just sitting next to each other with a cup of Chai tea and chatting about this and that. With the help of a translator, I was able to conduct the community event, as the native language in Chennai is Tamil. During the workshop, I repeatedly tried to establish conversation through group exercises, in order to form a bond between these women. By doing so, I wanted to show them that they are not alone, that there is always someone to reach out to.
At the end of the workshop, I invited every participant to tell me something they are especially proud of. I was impressed by their stories. To be honest, I had been expecting dependent wives who had not done much more than taking care of their households, their children and their husbands. As the culture is based on collectivism, the women’s function as housewives is not viewed as something negative, but it definitely decelerates the women’s emancipation and it prevents them from making self-determined decisions. Through the stories these women told me I realized that, stuck in my head, I had a wrong image of the women living in these slums. The place and the situation these women are caught in is everything but fair. However, it does not make them weak or dependent. I was surprised and impressed by their pride and their confidence in themselves. One of the women told me that she was part of a rescue team and had saved lives during the flood in 2016. Soon, she would be receiving a certificate for her excellent swimming. Another woman named Kaleedei told me about her passion for singing and that now she gets the chance to regularly sing in a church nearby the slum “Anna Salai”, Chennai. And then there was Rani, a woman who survived an acid attack from her husband and now regularly organizes meetings and events to inform others about the fatal after-effects of acid attacks and offers a safe space for victims to talk about their pain and their fears. The initiative Siragu helps her in realizing these events.
All of these stories shifted the image I had about the women living in the slums. I could strongly feel that they did not want compassion. Nonetheless, their strength does not compensate for the burden they carry every day. Most of the child marriages in Chennai happen in the slums and domestic violence is part of daily life. Women play an indispensable role for families as they are often running the household, holding the family together and raising children in addition to their work outside their home.
When I arrived back home, I asked myself the ultimate question: How can we actually help?
There are ways. I believe it starts by confronting ourselves with our own lifestyle. Do I buy products that support groups of companies which exploit people in developing countries? Every purchase can be compared to a vote that influences the economic, ecologic, and social world you want to live in. There are some organizations which support marginalized groups and which work towards sustainable solutions, such as the Womens India Trust Charity, the Apne Aap Women’s Collective and Oxfam India. If you want to support these people pro-actively, it is crucial to inform yourself about the program in detail and the impact the specific project has in the long term. It is important to keep in mind that the issues a country is struggling with are potentially deeper-rooted and the cause for the problems may be more complex than is visible on the surface. Therefore, the solutions must also start at the root of the problem.