The Working Women of Ahmedabad

This summer, I spent three months in Ahmedabad, India. Throughout the trip, I was pulled in two directions.  The first: office-bound, collaborating with experienced staff at the Mahila Housing SEWA Trust (MHT), to help define the most rigorous yet realistic data for their monitoring and evaluation plans. The second: in the field, welcomed into the homes of over fifty women, and gaining a greater understanding of how climate change affects their ability to earn an income within the informal economy. Two themes emerged as I became immersed within the local community: openness and creative determination.
Tag Maker and her family in their home. Photo Credit: Sara VanLear

Openness

The MHT welcomes and encourages different forms of expertise. In meetings, both professional staff and representatives from the neighborhoods candidly debated each other in order to reach a comprehensive and shared understanding about the best way to move forward. This inclusion of the expertise of those directly impacted has allowed MHT’s community partnerships to gain momentum and influence real, long-lasting change where they work.

The women partake in an MHT Workshop. Photo Credit: Sara VanLear
Woman in Jadibanagar
Woman and cook hired for many local families. Photo Credit: Sara VanLear

I also found myself, a complete stranger, received into the homes of women within neighborhoods all across the city. During my interviews, I met women who were as eager to learn from me as I was from them. We exchanged stories of child rearing, job searching, and even cooking. Our time together inevitably ended in shared cups of chai and invitations for me to stay long past our official interview time.

Creative Determination

Many of the neighborhoods in which MHT works are plagued by inefficient government support and wasted resources. Often, contractors are paid for work that is never done. It is not surprising that the community trusts neither the government nor formal planning agencies to improve their quality of life.

The MHT staff perseveres. They go weekly to areas where hope for help outside of the community’s own efforts has hit rock bottom. There, they slowly demonstrate possibilities for progress by working side-by-side with resident leaders. This grassroots leadership style has no cookie-cutter formula, but the progress that have occurred under their guidance is consistent and undeniable.

An egg seller comes up with innovative ways to protect her wares. Photo Credit: Sara VanLear

I also saw creative determination in each home that I visited. Every challenge was met with both long- and short-term solutions. For instance, I spoke with a woman who sells eggs, potatoes and onions. She wheels her cart throughout the neighborhood every day and often manages to sell out of her produce. In extreme heat, however, it is difficult to keep the exposed items from spoiling. She not only fashioned an effective shaded portion on her cart, but has also developed an agreement with her egg supplier to exchange spoiled eggs for fresh eggs in an even trade.

The openness and creative determination of the women at MHT and those within each community allows them to quickly respond to new information and constantly shifting realities. I have so much to learn from them – as a mother, as a creative thinker, and as a woman in the current economic climate.

The view from main temple in the old city. Photo Credit: Sara VanLear

Sara VanLear is a master’s candidate in the Department of City and Regional Planning, specializing in economic development. Prior to graduate school, Sara worked as a program associate at the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. A native of Virginia, Sara completed her bachelor’s degree in history at the College of William and Mary.

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