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Women Taking the Lead as Active Citizens

Supported by European Union (EU), Engaged Citizens, Responsive City project is being implemented over four years (2016-19) in three cities – Ajmer in Rajasthan, Jhansi in Uttar Pradesh and Muzaffarpur in Bihar. It is premised on a theory of change that if capacities of the urban poor civil society are enhanced; municipalities, middle class residents, traders, market and professional associations (TMPAs) are sensitised; and local academic institutions and media are engaged to work with civil society of the urban poor in planning, implementation and monitoring, then sanitation services in a city can improve substantially, which may positively impact every citizen in the city. In December 2017, the project completed two years of working with communities in three cities.

The project has been successful in forming 222 Settlement Improvement Committees (SICs) in the informal settlements of Ajmer, Jhansi and Muzaffarpur, with a total membership of 3092 members. Women and youth have emerged as dynamic leaders, listening to the needs of everyone in their communities, and actively raising demands on the municipality for better services. Women outnumber men as members (52.7% of SIC members are women, and 47.3% are men), and young women and men (between 18 and 35 years) are the primary drivers of the change.

At the end of the first year (2016), project outcomes indicated that women were far more enthusiastic and willing to become SIC members. Over the course of the second year (2017), these women have assumed leadership roles in the SICs, taking strong, collective action to bring electricity poles, foundations for household toilets, street cleaning service and garbage collection in their settlements. Hesitation has turned into confidence, and discussions have resulted in achievements.

“When we were leaving to meet Jal Sansthan officials, many people in the settlement regarded our action as a joke. We ourselves didn’t know whether our plan would work,” says Shashi, SIC member of Karguan in Ward 29 of Jhansi. This sceptism turned to admiration when the seven women members of Karguan SIC returned victorious – the Jal Sansthan had agreed to their demand to send a water tanker to the settlement, because the hand pumps had dried up. The first water tanker arrived within an hour, and through the hot summer months, tankers arrived with regularity.

“We did it! And now all of us genuinely believe in ourselves,” exults Shashi.

Shashi is one example. There are many more Shashi’s who have grown in confidence – 302 in Jhansi’s informal settlements, 802 in Ajmer and 521 in Muzaffarpur – a veritable army of motivated, willing women citizen leaders who will not take ‘No’ for an answer when it comes to improving the conditions in their settlements. Read more stories of change here.

Young girls and boys from the community have actively participated in Participatory Settlement Enumeration, a process of gathering information about a community by its own members. The enumeration has counted the unaccounted, those living in the margins, in slums and informal settlements, giving them a voice. It has also helped create, strengthen and deepen networks of slum dwellers in the three cities.

In the course of two years, the project has built capacities of 27 female enumerators and field supervisors recruited from local academic institutions and 59 women animators who support the community in collecting data, sharing information and organizing meetings.

The project is raising voice of women sanitation workers as key stakeholders in the city. Women sanitation workers are not only the most marginalised in the city sanitation landscape but also live in the urban poor settlements. 

Research on the working conditions and needs of women sanitation workers in Jhansi shows that illiteracy and improper implementation of government policies create a vicious cycle. This prevents women sanitation workers from accessing better opportunities.

There has been, and continues to be, an inescapable link between caste and occupation for India’s sanitation workers. This ageless association means isolation, invisibility and economic depression for them.

Efforts through the project, to raise awareness amongst municipal officials and middle classes, are trying to ensure that sanitation workers, especially women sanitation workers, gain voice and respect.

City dwellers in Ajmer, Jhansi and Muzaffarpur will know whom to thank when they see a clean street and when garbage is collected from their houses.

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