In the dingy narrow by lanes of Dharavi, 15 year old Anusja Madival is feeling a sense of great accomplishment. An android app developed by her has made it to the play store list. Aided by the “Slum Innovation Project”, an initiative aimed at making children and women self-dependent through technology, she was successfully able to conceptualise and develop the application which deals with women safety. Appropriately titled ‘Women fight back’, the app helps women in three ways. One, it creates a distress (SOS) sound that scares off the prospective assaulter. Two, it calls your friends and family. And three, it sends out an emergency message along with location.
She tells us excitedly:
I did not have anything to do after school, so I used to stay at home. When I learnt about these computer classes from my friend, I was keen to join. She brought me here after which sir taught me the basics of all subjects and then computer applications like paint, etc. We didn’t even know what app means until sir told us that we were going to make one. We divided ourselves in groups of three and then charted out the various issue that girls in our community face. Our group chose the subject of women’s safety.
As to why she chose the issue of women’s safety, her response is very measured for her age:
When girls walk through the streets, boys pass comments and follow them. My mom sees this everyday when she steps out for work. My elder sister and friends have also faced similar problems in the past. I am also a girl, so I thought I might face similar fate and hence it is important that such an app is made to secure their freedom to go about anywhere they like, just like the boys.
When we started coming here regularly, our app progressed. After our app came on the play store, news people started pouring in, along with foreigners. Interactions with them made us noticeable in the community, and people started treating us with more respect, as if we can also do something.
Anusja is just one of the girls for whom a whole new digital world has opened up thanks to the Slum Innovation Project. But the implementation of the project was an uphill task. The man behind the initiative, Navneet Ranjan, has stories about how getting an internet connection is also a task in the largest slum in the world. It took him two and a half months to get one from a private service provider, and even after that, there was no regularity due to the monopoly of the particular provider. “If this is the state in a city like Mumbai, we can very well imagine the state in smaller towns and villages of India”, says Navneet, who left his job at the Art University, San Francisco only to come back to India to make a substantive, sustainable change in the ecosystem. And today he is making a difference in the lives of the Dharavi residents, albeit in a small way. Recounting his initial challenges in this community inhabited by at least a million, he says:
“In the beginning it was really tough to convince local residents as to what are the possibilities of technology. So like parents were a little bit like why mobile phone technology. So I told them to just start and see what kind of changes it has. So it has given them a lot of perspective. Kids are more logical, critical and analytical and that has really helped their confidence level. And that’s how when people saw these kids performing really well at school also because of this mobile technology and app making journey, lot of also girls also started to come. As a result, we have about 200 girls from the community to the centre today.
The challenges were convincing especially because girls are not given a chance, especially in their family. If there is a boy and the girl, it is the boy who will get a glass of milk (if there is a glass of milk to spare). Girls are never given a chance to realize their potential in an ecosystem in which they can flourish as much as the boys. My idea was to strengthen the girls’ strength and weakness in the beginning and slowly spread this out to a larger chunk of population in the neighbourhood.
Navneet was a professor at an American University when he decided to make this big meaningful leap.
In the beginning I used my own saving to start this project and then friends and family pitched in. There were a lot of challenges for little things, like getting access to an internet connection took 2.5 months. Here everything takes its own time. It was frustrating in the beginning, but when I see these kids performing really well… These girls used to score in their 40s. Today they are scoring in their 70s, some in their 80s also. And the way this whole journey shaped up has given me a lot of strength to keep going. The transition was smooth. I feel like at the end I made a choice, and I was happy with the changes that were happening in this place. That gave me enough strength to fight with the limitations of the ecosystem of the neighborhood and India at large.
Okay, it is important to score well. But has inventing mobile applications made their social situation any better?
I have seen the girls have become a lot more confident. They feel as girls they can also do a lot, contribute a lot. Slowly they have started participating in the family issues. They have also intervened in domestic violence, drug abuse and even child marriage cases in their family. This happened in the last one and half year, after they were exposed to the possibility of technology.
The sense of empowerment that technology is providing to the young girls is heartening. Take 14 year old Fauzia for example, who ideated on and built the app to ditch long queues, and is waiting for funding so that her app can also become available on the mobile platform. Her rationale?
There is an acute water problem in our community. Women fight a lot in queues, sometimes it gets escalated to a physical spat even. Girls also do not get time to study because they have to stand in long queues, even if they have their exams. Water service is available only for 2 hours each day, from 7 -9.30 pm, and girls don’t get time to study since it is their responsibility to fill water.
The girls also seem to have developed a newfound love for STEM subjects and careers, due to the improved access that they got. Not only are they scoring double of what they used to, they are seemingly more inclined towards STEM professions, in view of the plethora of information that they have been exposed to.
Deepaali, one of the other girls tells us she is intrigued by space sciences, and wants to be a Space researcher to study the black hole when she grows up. Now that’s the future of India we wish to see!!
Feature Image Credit: dcsdigitalupdate.blogspot.com