I am Deepali Vandana, past 10 years working with homeless young
Women in India. As a daughter of a Dalit municipal sweeper from Kamathipura, a place surrounded by red light areas and known for recurring criminal offences and violence in Mumbai, I had experienced caste and gender discrimination up close and still experiencing every day. Like many other families blinded by the veil of patriarchy, my parents bore four daughters, in the hope of a son, to carry forward the family lineage and also raise their social status in the society This differential treatment usually meted out to the girl child continued in my life, initially through my joint family members, then at school and ultimately by the society at large. Nevertheless, since my childhood, I have been rebelling and questioning the various unjust, discriminatory practices around me. Openly speaking about menstruation with my father was one such instance, for which I had to face severe consequences. However, I didn’t let hurdles like that diminish my spirit.
I am a firm believer in “personal is political”. By integrating values of challenging gender and patriarchal norms from my own life, I legally changed my name by adding my mother’s name to my full name instead of my father’s. I also refused to get married bound by gender-oriented customs, due to which I was boycotted from my and husband native village. After getting married, my partner and I decided to live in an independent house as opposed to the traditional practice of going to the husband’s house.
I began my journey in the development sector at a young age of 18 years with Saathi, a Mumbai based organisation working with street children. I would engage with these children as a teacher, which led to being attached to the issue of homelessness. As a result, I began engaging and exploring it further, especially from the perspective of gender- women being the most vulnerable and marginalised group, even in this section of society.
I believe that to cope with the growing changes in society, continuously educating and upgrading one’s skills is very important. I have a bachelor's degree in Psychology and Economics and a Master’s degree in Economics. Presently, I am pursuing my MBA in Human Resources. I have also completed my diploma in counselling and child care.
Over the past 19 years, I have engaged in cases of sexual harassment, exploitation, human trafficking, cruelty, dowry harassment and other such related matters, which have raised several questions in my mind. I saw how the patriarchal system continues to exploit and discriminate against young girls and women in the name of honour, power, and to maintain the status quo in society. My experience in the field taught me that homelessness cuts across class, caste, religion; dysfunctional families, lack of love and care, being some of the causes for it in such instances. I was able to witness that gender discrimination is higher amongst the communities which practice rigid cultural, religious norms and practices. I also had a first-hand understanding of the interlinkages between caste and gender, the number of young women from marginalised communities being exploited and rendered homeless being the highest. All these learnings and experiences from the field made me reflect back on how the issue was being addressed at a larger level, and I felt that the focus was more on rehabilitation without addressing the root causes of the issue, which fail to bring about sustainable changes in the lives of women. I felt that there was a need for a holistic intervention on the subject, focussing not only on the rehabilitation of homeless young women but also going deeper and addressing the root causes of homelessness and working towards bringing about changes at the policy level. Hence, with these ideas and values in mind, URJA came into being in April 2012 with an aim to empower marginalised homeless young women between the ages 18-30 years, to lead a dignified and violence-free life. .
Most young women are often, doubly marginalized due to issues of poverty, caste, religion, gender discrimination, disabilities and mental health issues. Studies suggest that in India, gender disparities such as lack of schooling, deprivation from education, gender-based violence, forced dropouts, early marriages, and constraints on mobility, form major roadblocks in the future of girls, even though India has one of the fastest growing youth populations.
The growing problem of young women getting homeless is definitely a deep concern as it shows the exploitation of them and the inequality they are forced to suffer. The establishment of gender equality does not come into existence only by providing women with opportunities and empowerment, but by also ensuring that the society at large is educated on the importance of women’s human rights and thereby gender equality. I have taken efforts to do this by organising regular sessions with police, government peoples, civil communities, students, teachers etc, to address the issue of growing number of homeless young women and the challenges faced by them.
At URJA, we work on these issues from an intersectional rights-based perspective, with the lens of gender, caste and mental health at its core and with believed that a dignified life is ensured when there is empowerment of women on every aspect, physically, psychologically, socially, mentally, economically and legally. Hence, the women, along with their education, are provided with training sessions and opportunities in the areas of their interests and capabilities. Several young women from URJA participate in wide variety of activities including outbound activities like rafting, trekking and other related activities, and marathons, where several of our girls achieved medals for their timings and positions as well. As of today, URJA has facilitated the journey of more than 750 young women, towards a life with dignity.
Through years of work, I have been invited by various media platforms- Doordarshan, radio shows and talk shows to name a few, to talk about the issue of homeless young women. Due to my work in the field of gender equity, especially women rights, I was recognized and awarded the title of “MUMBAI HEROES” in February 2019. At the Leaders Quest Conference, 2018 held in the UK, where leaders from across the business, government and civil society who want to contribute towards a more sustainable, inclusive world were invited, I was the only Representative from India. I am also the recipient of 'Swayamsiddha Puraskar,' for my interventions in the domain of women empowerment and gender equity, especially for homeless young women. In addition, URJA competed at the Project Inspire organised by Mastercard and Singapore in collaboration with United Nations Women Committee, for organisations working towards gender equality, and finished among the ‘top 20’ in the whole of Asia. URJA has also selected in 25 and received a grant from Yes Foundation at a competition organised for organisations and companies which had over 11,100 applications across India. I was also on the committee formed in Matunga Zone Police, under ‘The Sexual Harassment of Women at Workplace (Prevention, Prohibition and Redressal) Act, 2013’.