Mumbai slum girls innovating where governments can’t and markets won’t

I watched Slumdog Millionaire many years ago and cried. I grew up in India and routinely saw little, maimed beggar children on crossroads and never thought how they got there. That movie completely shattered my protective glass.
Now I have two little girls and cannot bear to watch violence against children.
So when I heard about a group of driven young girls and mothers in Dharavi (the same slum where Slumdog Millionaire was shot), I was so energized that I could finally help right some of the hellish wrongs that we perpetrate against children.
Nawneet Ranjan, a very motivated and talented young filmmaker, approached us and told us about this group of women who were making laptop bags out of old sarees and were interested in learning about technology, so that they could make apps to market their products.
He told us a little about his own journey. His initial goal was to interview the Dharavi residents for a documentary he was making. As he started talking to the women, he was struck by their entrepreneurial spirit and their desire to improve their daughters’ future. He realized that just interviewing them for the documentary was going to be heartless, if he didn’t do something to help them as well. 
That was inspiring.
And then hearing the girls talk about it in their own voices was even more inspiring.
That was last year. I shared some tablets, phones and asked Nawneet to keep in touch.

A few months later, he contacted us again and said that he had a group of 20 girls who wanted to participate in the three-month long Technovation program, and learn to create mobile apps to solve problems in their community and launch their apps on the market.
This is why this undertaking is so inspiring.
Dharavi is one of the world’s largest slums with a population greater than that of San Francisco. It is in the heart of Mumbai. Most of the girls work as house-help in people’s homes and earn $3 – a month. They go to a local government school.
They didn’t have a safe place to meet, so we helped Nawneet rent a classroom space and hook up internet, so that they could access the Technovation curriculum.

Language is a just another barrier as they are not very literate or comfortable in English.
But they have grit.
The girls’ enthusiasm to learn has inspired their mothers who have formed Mahila Mandals to help further support the girls.
The three apps that the girls are working on are to solve very real problems:

  • Water access – water comes only once a day to Dharavi and only for half an hour. Children (particularly girls) have to skip school to wait hours in line. Fights are a daily occurrence. The girls are creating an app (for a cell phone) that will help families register and secure their place in the queue. The app will notify the families (via sms) when their turn is coming up, so that children dont have to waste time waiting in lines.

  • Security – Rape in India is a huge problem and one that the country is struggling to address – ineffectually.  The girls are creating an app that will help users press a “scream” button that will notify others — through the alarm as well as through a call made to the police.
  • Health Education – Women do not have access to information — really basic information regarding personal hygiene and around more life-threatening instances, like child birth. They have no support systems or resources. The Gates blog has a great post on the state of India’s sanitation problem. The girls are working on a health education app that can provide basic health and hygiene tips to users via cell phone sms.  The Mahila Mandals want to get tablets so that more women and girls can access videos and more comprehensive health education resources.

The Dharavi girls and mothers are unusual because they have the courage to seek help and the desire to fix these problems themselves. They are also unusual in that they want to befriend technology to drive this change. They want to share their stories and problems with the rest of the world – through video blogging.

We can’t wait to hear their voices and ideas. 
That is the only true way to right the situation – not to look to governments, big corporations or nonprofits – but the girls. Empower the girls.
    Pictures and Video by Nawneet Ranjan