“The Slum-Girl Whisperer”

Who I am: I am Aarti Naik. I am 26 years old. And I live in the Mulund West area of Mumbai, India, in a slum with my family. I share a house with my mother, Pushpa, my father, DattatryAarti (they have been married for 50 years!) and my little brother, Rajni. My elder sister, Sachin, got married a few years ago and moved away.

What do I do and why? All of my life, I have struggled to continue my education, but it has never been easy due to my family’s lower socioeconomic condition. After making jewelry for three years for nine rupees a day (about 15 cents in U.S. dollars) and accepting what money my parents could give me, I saved enough money to pass the 10th standard exam and go on to college (Yashwantrao Chavan Mararashtra Open University). I expect to graduate in two more years.

I am not the only girl in my slum community with a problem around education. Slum girls often become school dropouts and enter the vicious cycle of violence, low self-esteem and poverty. Once in the cycle, most of the girls cannot complete their schooling, and they mainly end up doing domestic work or not working at all.

In 2008, I set out to reverse these circumstances for myself and other slum girls. I received help from Ashoka’s Youth Venture to conduct basic educational classes for girls of primary school age. The program started with six girls and has since blossomed into a social enterprise called *SAKHI for Girls’ Education with approximately 100 girls.

What does this learning look like? Keep reading to see for yourself. And remember, I am only a slum girl from Mumbai, who for some reason believes that she can make a change for her slum girls.

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(*Note: Sakhi means a female friend who inspires, guides and supports.)

24 Hours in the Life of a Slum Girl Changemaker

Friday 6:30  a.m. My day starts.

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My home is one main room with a small space for the kitchen. My father sleeps on a cot, my mother and I sleep on the floor in front of the cot and my brother sleeps in a room we built on our roof. It’s a small space, but we are able to accommodate all our things in this limited area.

When I wake up, I help my mom with breakfast. Usually, we have hot tea and milk and chapatis (flatbread or roti). Sometime we eat pohe (pressed rice with spices like mustard seeds, turmeric and onions) and rava (semolina), too. We do not have a table – there is not enough space to put one in our small room. So my mother and I sit on the floor, and my father sits on his cot when we eat. Sometimes I take breakfast alone, because I need to move ahead early to do SAKHI work.

IMG_20140508_123120 Aarti Naik's Mother

(My Mother!)

Then I go and get in line at the common toilet facility. All the girls and women in my area go to one place for the toilet and the men and boys go to another. There are eight toilets for the 70 or so girls and women who come every morning, but only five are in good working condition. We bring our own buckets to wash with because there are only two buckets in the facility. And since we sometimes face water shortages, most of us also bring water from home in our buckets. Sometimes there is also no electricity in the toilet area, and that’s when we see rats. And I have a big fear of rats! You should hear me screaming loudly when I see one!

There is always a big queue of girls and women. So everyone has to wait for her number. It takes me about 20 minutes from arriving to returning home.

10:00 a.m. – 11:00 a.m.

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I go back home and help my mom with domestic work, like washing clothes, scrubbing pots, sweeping the room, preparing the monthly budget, going to the market to buy vegetables and other required things, whatever needs to be done.

11:00 a.m. – 1:30 p.m.

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I walk to the SAKHI Girls’ Learning Center (GLC), the small space I rent for classes and the place where I prepare my lessons for the day and worksheets for our weekly exams. The Center is very near my home – only a two-minute walk on a small, dusty road that is always crowded with vehicles. Our room is small, with a cement roof and brick walls mixed with sand and cement. It’s not well insulated, but I do my best to accommodate my girls there in two batches in the evening.

This last academic year, I have been paying 3,000 INR per month (about US$50), along with a deposit of 30,000 INR for a year (about US$500). But it is a very small room. I hope in the next academic year, I will be able to get a bigger space in my slum area.

1:30 p.m. – 2: 00 p.m.

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For lunch, I go back home to eat with my family. Most of the time, my mother makes lunch. Sometimes I help when she does not feel well or when I get free time.

Usually, I prefer to have chapati, vegetables and rice. Either once or twice a week, we have meat in our meal, but other times, we eat vegetarian food.

Then I head back to the classroom.

2.00 p.m. – 3:00 p.m.

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I tutor Guddi, the 23-year-old first student of my new initiative from SAKHI, Girls’ Dream School, where older school dropouts can fulfill their dream of education. I focus on basic literacy and numeric skills. Only one year prior, Guddi could not read or write even simple sentences. And she had a lot of anxiety about her educational progress. But with my help, she recently got admitted to the National Open School, and now, Guddi is studying Indian culture, Marathi language, home science, data entry and drawing (chitra kala). I tutor her every weekday for an hour.

3:00 p.m. – 3:30 p.m.

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I take a break, go back home and have tea.

3:30 p.m. – 4:30 p.m.

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I plan the next day’s lesson for Guddi and write her progress report.

4:30 p.m. to 5:00 p.m.

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Girls and Aarti

I clean the Girls’ Learning Center. We all sit on the floor for our lessons, and the room’s walls are not in great condition. But I make sure it is clean and comfortable.

5:00 pm to 8:00 pm 

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Around 35 girls show up for the classes. I lead group activities in singing, drawing, puzzle-making, theater, word games, and then on every Thursday, I give a weekly exam.


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Here is an example of a word game the girls love to play. The girls sit in a circle. One girl whispers a word in the next girl’s ear, then that girl tells the same word to another girl sitting next to her, and the word makes its way around the circle, often ending up not being the word we started with! This game gives girls the message that we need to listen carefully.

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Sometimes, I also do the day song. It’s a song where every girl does a certain action that corresponds to the name of a day. The girls learn to write the names of the days in logical sequence.

And at the end of each class, I have each girl write in her progress diary. This is a reinforcement tool for motivating and inspiring the girls to stay actively involved in their own learning. Each girl shares her diary with her mother so that her mother can follow her progress.

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8:00 pm – 10:00 pm 

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During this time, I speak to the girls or their mothers about any personal problems.

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And I meet with supporters like Savita. Savita is the mother of Bhakti, who comes to GLC, and she always inspires me and supports my work. Savita is always giving me updates about whatever is happening in the slum community, and she always tries to guide and support me when I have to deal with difficult situations.

10:00 p.m. – 11:00 p.m.

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I head back home, and help my mother make dinner. Usually, we make chapatis, dal (red lentils), vegetables (palak [spinach], potatoes or lady’s-fingers [okra]) and rice. We use a pressure cooker to cook the dal and rice, and the chapatis are made in a round iron pot. After dinner, I wash the plates, and if there are any dirty clothes, I wash them.

11:00 p.m. – 12:00 a.m.

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I go to bed!