Warrior queen of Govandi dump and vital cog in the wheel that turns Mumbai

Fellowship stories

29 September 2014

A four-year-old girl was sexually abused by the teenage son of her family’s landlord. The boy’s family wanted to avoid police intervention, so they persuaded the couple to take the girl to the doctor and agreed to pay the expenses. The doctor refused to admit the girl, saying it was a police case. This would have gone unreported like so many other cases were it not for Anwari’s intervention.

“Everything is connected to the way women are treated and their ability to speak out. Without that, nothing can be addressed – not education nor sanitation nor health nor water …” Anwari Khan

Anwari is one of our earliest Quest Fellows, and her work since she completed her fellowship in 2009 has grown in both scope and impact. She lives in Rafi Nagar, an “illegal settlement” where most people work as rag pickers or piece-work embroiderers. It is an extraordinarily bleak place, sitting beside Govandi dump, a vast municipal rubbish tip teeming with people of all ages sifting through the trash. A landscape of big, softly sloping hills as far as the eye can see, all of it garbage. In some places a thin dusting of grass grows.

Rafi Nagar itself is built on rubbish. The streets run with sewage and waste and to the other side the slum looks out across a wide creek. There is no river as such – just a thin stream of sewage surrounded by a vast sea of muddy waste.

At the edge of the slum people have built precarious walkways projecting out over a steep drop to the sludge below and at the end of each of these walkways sits a toilet – a wooden-sided box construction with a gap in the planks that serve as a floor. Monsoon season is hard to imagine. Apparently the water comes up very high and runs knee deep through all the houses. Kids swim here and malaria and typhoid, amongst many other things, are a big problem.

Anwari has a seemingly insatiable appetite to learn and to put her knowledge to practical use as a self-made leader and part of a thriving informal sector. She has become the chief organiser of a women’s federation to tackle issues that range from domestic violence and access to clean water and sanitation, to combatting corruption amongst police and local officials. In just three years the network of self-help groups that Anwari led has swollen, almost unbelievably, to around eight hundred women.

She was born in the state of Uttar Pradesh and moved with her parents to Mumbai aged around twelve. She was engaged at ten, married at sixteen and then gave birth to eight children – five girls and three boys.

“I didn’t learn to read or write – just a bit of Urdu from the Madrasa where my father sometimes sent me. But my children – they are all literate,” she said.

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Anwari's marriage was tough and loveless. “He’s very violent, my husband, a drunk and a gambler. He used to beat me all the time and kept me locked in the house. But slowly, slowly I found a way to change, to take my freedom and stand up to him. Still today, he comes and goes. He hasn’t worked for many years. Mostly he’s gone, which works well.”

The family moved to Rafi Nagar about eight years ago when they could no longer afford the rent in their previous slum. About a year later, Anwari became involved in the women’s group. Her eldest daughter had recently been married to a cousin at her father’s insistence. But the cousin turned out to share his uncle’s temper. Anwari was looking for a way to fight back against the violence she saw all around her, and so she joined the group.

“Soon I was taking more and more of a leadership role. I picked up on the case of a four-year-old child who’d been raped. The police weren’t interested and didn’t want to take any action. So I took the child to hospital and got a report. I went daily to the police station until they agreed to take action and pursue the man who’d done it. He was arrested and tried and sent to prison for seven years.”

Her work as a community leader picked up. She engaged in training and mentorship with a peer group of local leaders and learned many new skills, focusing, in particular, on domestic violence.

“In the beginning people did terrible things, cutting our electricity, throwing stones, calling me bad names. They threatened us and falsely accused my son of crimes. But today it’s very different. I’m respected. Behaviour has changed. Many people have learned a lot.

“About a week ago one women of twenty four years committed suicide by burning herself to death. She was suffering badly at the hands of her husband and she couldn’t stand it anymore. As she died she told the police she’d done it to herself. So they called for me right away. I came to her home and it was terrible, terrible. I washed her body and made her ready for her funeral.

“Before I began this work, I thought of myself as a zero, a nothing,” said Anwari. “Today I know I’m a leader. I believe in myself. I know that I’m capable. And I get great satisfaction when I’m able to solve a case, to improve a person’s life.”