Adolescent girls in the Mumbai slum of Dharavi are battling the daily challenges they face, one mobile app at a time
Tutored on laptops donated by friends of Nawneet Ranjan, a filmmaker who set up a charity in Dharavi, the girls are embracing technology to confront issues ranging from their safety to garbage in the sprawling slum in India’s biggest city.
“Girls and women suffer the most in a slum, as they often have no resources and are not aware of their rights,” said Ranjan, who studied filmmaking in the United States before returning to Mumbai.
“I wanted to teach the girls how to use technology to get ahead,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation in a bare room that serves as the classroom. About two dozen girls were seated on the floor, tapping at laptops or reading.
The girls are building apps they hope will be used by slum dwellers to make their lives easier – by allowing them to send a distress call if a woman is being harassed, a message to civic authorities when garbage needs clearing, or to receive an alert when it’s their turn at the communal water tap.
India is one of the world’s largest software services exporters. Global and local technology companies hire tens of thousands of English-speaking college graduates every year at modern campuses in cities such as Bengaluru and Hyderabad.
The spare room in Dharavi where Roshani, Ansuja, Sapna and Nahek learned to code is a far cry from those glass-and-chrome offices and from global movements such as Girls Who Code and Girls in Tech, aimed at getting more women into technology.
Ranjan’s Dharavi Diary project began with 15 girls. It has grown to more than 200 now, and includes boys and mothers of the children, as well.
“I like building apps. Knowing how to use a computer, to write code is important for getting a good job,” said Ansuja, a slight and articulate 15-year-old.
“I want to build an app that can help fight child labour, because these are children younger than us and instead of studying, they have to work,” she said.
After school every day, there are lessons in maths, science and arts besides computers, and a game of football most evenings in the playground across the street. During the summer holidays, children stream in and out of the brightly-painted room all day.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has made girls’ education one of his priorities, with a nationwide campaign.
A long-delayed plan to redevelop Dharavi envisages tearing down the shacks and building apartments for the residents, who live beside open drains and with no running water.
“They see so much every day – domestic violence, drug abuse, child abuse, poverty. Their parents are taxi drivers and domestic workers, and these kids are usually the first in the family to go to school,” said Ranjan.
“But every family has at least one smartphone, and that’s why I thought of using technology. Technology is such a leveller, and it gives them such confidence,” he said.
The girls picked the issues they wanted to address and built the apps in groups of four each, using open-source software. Their apps include one for women’s safety, one for water conservation and one on education.
For Ranjan, watching the girls interact with visitors and showing off their apps on a tablet or mobile is evidence that even limited resources can be put to use.
“It’s frugal innovation at its best,” he said.
“With the right resources and mentoring, they can do so much more. And these can be applied in slums, in cities everywhere.”