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From pavement dweller to community mobiliser


New Delhi : From living in a shantytown and working as a domestic help to mobilizing her society toward a better future, Geeta of Mumbai has come a long way. Her inspirational story is also a case study for a UN report.

Featured in the youth supplement of the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) annual report 2007, among seven youth of different countries, the supplement focuses on the challenges and promises of urbanization that affect youth.

Living on the pavement in a makeshift house with her parents and three siblings, Geeta was one of the few lucky ones who went to school early on in life.

Despite all their ensuing problems, eating leftover food brought by her mother, wearing hand-me-down clothes and facing threats of their home getting demolished every now and then, to name a few, Geeta's enthusiasm to study was unbeatable.

But not for long! Her father and brother fell seriously ill and she had to start working as a domestic help along with her mother to pay for the extra expenses.

"I always thought that I was going to be a good student. But suddenly that was over. All I cared about was buying medicine for my father and brother and helping my mom. I stopped thinking of the future," Geeta said.

The tide turned when Geeta's mother met the women of the Mahila Milan (Women Together). Mahila Milan worked in partnership with an NGO called Society for the Promotion of Area Resource Centres (SPARC) to help women in the slums.

In one of their initiatives, the women were supposed to save money that would be put into a savings system. The money would then be used for the community's welfare like building houses for them. Geeta was made in charge of handling the savings system.

"The aim was to empower the poor so that they could collectively save, look for land and think up projects for housing instead of begging to the government," she said.

Getting a nominal stipend for her job, Geeta was nevertheless happy that she was serving her community. Years later, their collective effort has paid off.

Geeta's family shifted to a proper house along with 2,000 other families in one of the 18 buildings in the outskirts of Mumbai.

Geeta today is not half as concerned about marriage as she is about earning a decent living. "I can earn and eat and marriage is not the only purpose of life," she said with a twinkle in her eye.

According to UNFPA's report, in 2008, for the first time, more than half the world's population will live in the urban areas. The urban population of Asia and Africa will double in less than a generation.