DAY FIFTEEN: The experiences of migrant girls in cities 

Anandini Dar centres the experiences of migrant girls in this piece and their exclusion from schools and public spaces, which is “intrinsically enmeshed with the larger patterns of reception of migrants in the city, their living conditions, (im)mobility and freedom from authority, spatio-structural inequality and poverty.”

Anandini Dar

Featured image: “0011 – A TESS-India material using teacher engaging in student centred activity based teaching in her classroom” by TESS-India is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

“School jaane ka mann nahi karta.” 

 (I do not feel like going to school) 

Rinky, 13 years, girl  

This statement, while made in a fleeting way during a conversation by Rinky, a migrant child residing in an urban informal settlement in the south of Delhi, is very telling. It captures the sentiments shared by many other young adolescent girls who experience everyday life through the prism of gender, (im)mobility, and precarity. In India, there is a high rate of internal rural to urban displacement accompanied by migration to cities, with approximately 139 million people migrating from rural to urban centers, as per the latest Census (2011). With statist development agendas deeply linked to plans for urbanization, families migrate to cities in search of better jobs and schooling for their children. Many of these families travel back to their hometowns seasonally, for festivals, important family occasions like weddings and deaths, and as per the agricultural cycles of harvest. But while living in Delhi most families feel displaced, and the lives of their children remain as bleak as the myth of modern schooling.1

Despite the inclusion of migrant children and their issues around education in the NEP 2022, the plan for school retention of migrant children is not sufficient for the kinds of “slow violence” young migrant girl children, in particular, face inside and outside of schools in Delhi. 

 When I was working with migrant families who have arrived from Assam and West Bengal and living in an urban informal settlement in the south of Delhi, I found that girls’ exclusion from educational spaces was not only a problem of the schooling system, but intrinsically enmeshed with the larger patterns of reception of migrants in the city, their living conditions, (im)mobility and freedom from authority, spatio-structural inequality and poverty. Social and physical inclusion is as much, if not more important to ensure that educational and social aspirations of girls and their parents are fulfilled.

Despite enrolment in schools, many of the migrant girls, as they enter adolescence, are sent back to their villages to get married as young as thirteen years old. If girls stay back in cities, they continue to face various forms of exclusion and violence. Young girls face threat to physical harm in public spaces, and their parents fear their safety, as a result of which girls are barred from spending time in large open spaces within their settlements, not allowed to access city streets independently, and are mostly resigned to household chores and care work for younger siblings.

When Rinky articulates that she does not feel like going to school, as shared in the opening account, it is not only because of the challenges that continue to permeate the schooling system, including language barriers to her learning, but also due to the unsafe urban landscape that girls like her traverse on a daily basis.  

However, young migrant girls like Rinky are resilient and very articulate about their needs and aspirations, despite the setbacks to their mobility and education. In discussions with adolescent girls in the settlement, we were able to learn about their challenges and their needs. Through drawings, girls shared that there is no accessible play space for them in their neighborhoods, and oftentimes their most basic desire to play games with friends in the settlement is deterred due to an absence of a designated safe play area. One girl shared that they cannot play in the settlement as groups of men and young boys occupy the open areas and they feel unsafe in those areas and do not get a chance to play with friends. Neighbouring public parks are gated and despite many of their mothers working in the neighboring gated communities, they are not allowed to use the public parks. Girls shared that if there was a designated play area, which included trees, access to drinking water, and a shop where they could purchase play materials, they would feel safe in playing outdoors in their settlement.  

Image copyright: Himanshi & Duha.  

We learned from this process that it is important to listen to girls, as they are not just “becomings”, but agentic beings, with capabilities (Prout & James, 1997), rooted in their socio-cultural and embedded everyday contexts. They are able offer innovative ideas for interventions to improve their own wellbeing. Only through more transformative and inclusive spaces along with practices of co-designing with girls that there is a possibility to fully listen to girls ideas and innovative strategies that can help counter the “slow violence” they experience in their everyday landscapes within the city.  

References

Balagopalan, S. (2022). Introduction: Modernity, Schooling, and Childhood in India: Trajectories of Exclusion. Children’s Geographies, DOI: 10.1080/14733285.2022.2073196 

Prout, A. & James, A. (1997). A new paradigm for the sociology of childhood? Provinance, promise and problems. In James, A. & Prout A. (Eds.), Constructing and Reconstructing Childhood: Contemporary Issues in the Sociological Study of Childhood (Second Edition). London: Falmer Press. 

Acknowledgements

This reflection has emerged from the research project “Displacement, Placemaking and Wellbeing in the City.”  The support of the Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) and the two research frameworks of the Global Challenges Research Fund and the EU-India Platform for the Social Sciences and Humanities (EqUIP) is gratefully acknowledged. The  project is also grateful to the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) (Grant Ref ES/R011125/1).  

Author’s Bio


Dr. Anandini Dar is Faculty of Sociology and Education, at Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University Delhi (AUD), India. She is the founder and co-convener of the Critical Childhoods and Youth Studies Collective (CCYSC), and serves as the advisory board member of The Childism Institute, at the Rutgers University, USA. Dr Dar completed her PhD from the Department of Childhood Studies at Rutgers. She recently co-edited a Special Issue for the journal Childhood, titled, “Southern Theories and Decolonial Childhood Studies” (2022). She is currently co-editing the International Handbook of Childhood and Global Development, Routledge, UK, and has published articles in encyclopedias and journals such as, the International Journal of Children’s Rights, Childhood, and the Journal of Childhood Studies.  

DAY FOURTEEN: Heart & Art, a creative program for refugee and asylum seeker women

Amancaya Xristina shares the power of art through her piece on the Heart & Art creative program for refugee and migrant women. By using creativity women reinvent what are those stable values within themselves, that no matter the circumstances they can return to and feel safe.

Amancaya Xristina

Featured image: Artwork created during the Heart & Art creative program. Image credit: Amancaya Xristina

When words are not ready to be shared, painting through its symbols and colors can become a smoother bridge to connect the dots of the past to the future, from loneliness to community, from silence to a story. Heart & Art is a creative and therapeutic program of interaction and exploration where refugee and asylum seeker women from different paths of life meet, create and share. The focus is on community, self-expression and healing from trauma. By using creativity women reinvent what are those stable values within themselves, that no matter the circumstances they can return to and feel safe.

Gender based violence (GBV) is often disguised in subtle forms of living, such as the daily intimidation of survival, or on the uncertainty of where “home” was, is and will be and when can I reach it, how to raise my children through a xenophobic and racist culture? How do we combat GBV through safe and respectful networks of solidarity and how to reinvent oneself in a new culture as a woman and mother?

My most recent insight on GBV and displacement comes from my work in Amurtel Greece, an organization located in the center of Athens, that gives various forms of support to refugee and migrant women in pregnancy, in birth and postpartum. We gather in this safe women’s space once a week, where mothers are able to close their eyes, connect with their breath, choose their brushes and colors, and create.  To be in the present for a whole hour without worrying or thinking ahead is a state that is often unthinkable for refugee women, so when they do manage to relax it is a welcome break to them.

In a few cases, some mothers needed and were ready to share their story in detail. This included their stories of abuse and how they conceived their baby, sometimes in a refugee camp or while crossing borders. However, the majority of them need time to build trust and open up. Through art and more specifically through painting, mothers are able to access sensible personal information which is not yet ready to be expressed in words. The “silence” of colors, forms, and symbols has an inner message that has valuable meaning to the mother that creates and gives her an understanding of her present psychological inner state of being.

Painting is a tool that is respectful to the emotional pace of each person; it reveals only what the mother is ready to share to herself and to the group. Expressing through painting is a respectful and essential way of working with possible victims of GBV. Of course, it does not have to be only painting or a specific technique. The idea behind it not just being eager to listen right away for a detailed story expressed orally but employing creativity to access the unconscious information of each person in its own symbolism, rhythm and time.

One of the workshops of Heart & Art is called “Masks & Mirrors”, where we challenge the notion of who we are, how we see ourselves and how others see us. Another expression of GBV for refugee women is self-identity crisis; asking “who am I?” while crossing border to border and when the cultural norms differ. The cultural shock is inevitable and there is a heavy weight on them when they walk in unknown and unfamiliar places.

At the same time in “Masks & Mirrors”, we go deeper and try to look into the different layers of societal perceptions since childhood to adulthood, womanhood, motherhood – the mask of innocence, of being a pure girl, a quiet woman, a caregiving mother. We acknowledge these invisible masks in our self of today and by painting our new mask we redefine who we are and who we want to become.

One mother shared with the group that the white part of the mask represents her early years when she was a girl and a daughter, and the black painted part of the mask represents when she got married. There is no need for further questioning to understand her full story. The image that she portrayed accompanied with her few words reveal her present perception of herself in her story, which she can redefine when she is ready. This first acknowledgement is a valuable step towards healing. Also, various mothers that wear the hijab put make up on their masks – rouge, eyelines and crayons – and they share that this is how they would like to look if they could.

In another Heart & Art workshop called “Mothers within Mothers”, the intention is to honor and heal the intergenerational linkage of mothers within their own mothers and with their children. One of the mothers in the group stayed silent the whole hour but she did paint. Once more the symbols and colors used revealed her story in a respectful, subtle way. From this image alone, we were able to address her need for further psychological support.

I used these few examples from my practical experience with the mothers that visit Amurtel Greece to share my insight on how to approach victims of GBV in transition, in this case refugee and asylum seeker mothers.

Art can reach ones’ truth in a humane, calmer and softer way when words are not ready.

Author’s Bio

I started painting at the age of 24 when I was living in the colorful country of my favorite painter Frida Kahlo, in Mexico. While living in Bolivia I wrote an art visual book of birth stories, painting and poetry called “Birth as you please”. In Latin America, Canada and now in Greece I am coordinating women’s circles using art as a powerful healing tool. I have a degree in Economics, an MBA and a Master’s in Social Development and I am currently studying Art Therapy.

I always say that I started painting to penetrate more into the truth of life where words cannot reach. Creating in groups and especially in a circle is therapeutic in itself since it is a safe space for sharing and connection. I am now conducting in collaboration with various non-profit organizations (IOM GREECE, Amurtel Greece, Caritas Hellas) an art program I call Heart & Art, with refugee women who have deep traumas, but also life teachings of strengths and resilience.  I am always moved by how art can instantly alleviate the human spirit.

Art is more than an expression, it is a human need that connects us to our inner truth and wisdom.

For further information:

https://amancayacreate.wixsite.com/amancayacreate

https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/birth-as-you-please-amancaya-xristina/1138446248?ean=9781989795088

https://greece.amurtel.org/

https://www.facebook.com/AMURTEL.Greece/

DAY SIX: Migration, mobilities and displacement: A view from the ground in Nithari, India

Sunalini Kumar writes about displacement and the disproportionate effects of migration on women in Nithari, a village of thousands of ‘urban villages’ in the industrial suburb of NOIDA (New Okhla Industrial Development Area) in India.

Sunalini Kumar

Featured image credits: Joint Women’s Programme

Nithari village is one of thousands of ‘urban villages’ in the industrial suburb of NOIDA (New Okhla Industrial Development Area), just outside India’s national capital, Delhi. Nithari presents a picture of congestion, overflowing sewage, narrow galis (streets in Hindi) and ramshackle, hastily erected tenements. Nevertheless, over the decades Nithari has become home to thousands of marginalised and poor Indians from North India and beyond.  

In the popular press – both Indian and foreign – economic liberalisation brought prosperity to the country and expanded opportunities for the poor. However, the underbelly of this growth has been devastating especially for those who were suddenly defined as ‘unskilled’. Women form a huge section of the category of the especially vulnerable, ‘unskilled’ poor in a phenomenon termed the ‘feminisation of poverty’ by economists.

Often illiterate, jobs like babysitting; elder care; and employment in hospitals and factories, which were previously open to them, are now denied under the modern, ‘corporate’ organisation of labour.  

Therefore, urban migration for women is different from the experiences of men who are generally literate and have a higher bargaining status. Migrant women find themselves caught in a vicious cycle of low wages and a sudden decline in status compared to their lives in the village. In Nithari, the Joint Women’s Programme – an autonomous women’s organisation established in 1977 – reports that despite their lower status, migrant women have become the primary breadwinners of their families. This is either due to destitution; domestic violence; or because their male partners are afflicted with physical and mental health issues. However, persistent cultural factors in these communities simply don’t acknowledge the reality of women as workers. Due to these long-term factors, the effects of the 2020-22 COVID-19 pandemic have been especially devastating in Nithari. Padmini Kumar of the JWP shared some examples of migrant women’s distress during the pandemic: 

‘Food on plate’ Image credits to: Padmini Kumar

A migrant labourer from Bihar, Rani was stranded in Nithari with her children. Her husband had gone to another district in search of work and lost contact with the family. With no money in hand Rani would stand in front of the gate of the emergency food ration service organised in the school run by JWP. One of the teachers asked her if she was looking for someone. She started crying and confessed that she and her children had not eaten for three days. They did not have a phone to contact anyone in their village and were staying under a stolen old polythene banner to protect themselves from the hot sun. JWP continued to give her food till the end of lockdown but lost touch with her post-pandemic.  


Omvati was working as a construction labourer along with her son after her husband had died due to a workplace accident. The contractor paid them a small token amount to cremate the body. With grief weighing them down they preferred to go back to their village. But the sudden lockdown had left them with debts and the contractor refused to give them their earlier payments. The single room they had rented needed to be cleared of dues. They were left locked inside the work site, with very little to eat and with no access to a clean toilet. After four days when they ran out of groceries, they started waving their clothes to try to catch the attention of passers-by but due to the lockdown there was hardly anyone in the vicinity. Out of hunger and exhaustion they were found semi-conscious by one of JWP’s community workers. Emergency first aid was given and they were taken to hospital. It was ensured that they were given food every day until the end of the lockdown. Later the JWP volunteers met the contractor to redeem a major part of their wage dues and the family was sent home as per their own wishes. 

There are many such stories in Nithari, like the ones shared above. The COVID-19 pandemic and the ongoing economic fallout of it in India has elevated the ordinary marginalisation of migrant women in Indian cities to widespread destitution. This is a silent crisis that has not received the kind of attention from the government and the media that it needs.

In Nithari, migrant women are in danger of losing what little they had before the pandemic; and yet they remain the fragile pillars, on which their children and others depend. Without sustained intervention by the state, these women will become one of the long-term casualties of the pandemic, without even the formal acknowledgment accorded to other victims. Gendered violence takes many forms; Nithari’s women experience it not only directly, but also in its most insidious form through the uncaring patriarchal state.  

Author’s Bio

Sunalini Kumar is Associate Professor at the School of Global Affairs, Dr B R Ambedkar University Delhi. She was educated at Delhi University, JNU and Cambridge University. She has previously been Visiting Fellow at CSDS, Delhi and Fulbright Nehru Postdoctoral Fellow at MESAAS, Columbia University.

Sunalini’s research interests centre around urban and regional politics; gender and political theory; and the global south. Her publications are included in Critical Studies in Politics: Sites, Selves, Power (Delhi, Orient Blackswan 2013) and Urbanising Citizenship (Delhi, London and Thousand Oaks, Sage 2013). She is a contributing member of the widely read blog http://www.kafila.org.