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In Indian slum, girls learn to code

Zainab Sultan
April 3, 2017

Girls living in a slum in India are breaking gender stereotypes by learning how to code and develop mobile applications. It's making some parents reassess whether marriage is a girl's best option, reports Zainab Sultan.

Roshani Sheikh works on her robotics kit
Image: DW/N. Ranjan

Roshani's mother has never been to school, nor has she ever used a computer, but that is something her 17-year-old daughter is helping to remedy. The girl from Dharavi, one of Asia's largest slums, in Mumbai, has invented a mobile application that helps her mother learn English, math and even seek medical advice from a nearby doctor.

Roshani Shaikh (photo above) attends school in the morning, rushes home to finish her chores and spends the rest of the day coding at Dharavi Diary's learning center in Mumbai.

"In my school we have one computer, but we are only allowed to see it," said Shaikh. "We can't even touch it."

Roshani Shaikh was one of the first 15 girls to join Dharavi Diary. The project, started by 36-year-old documentary filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan in 2014, aims to empower girls from the slum and give them a better chance at gaining an education and life skills.

"I would often see young girls play the role of their mothers, where they cooked, cleaned and took care of their younger siblings, and I wanted to engage with them and change the popular narrative," said Ranjan.

Girls share laptops in coding class
The classes began with 15 girls and just two computers. Now they have more of bothImage: DW/N. Ranjan

At the outset, Ranjan only had two computers for the girls, but material needs were not his greatest hurdle.

"Initially my biggest challenge was to convince the parents to send their daughters to the center," he said. "The parents would often question me: Why not take their sons, or take two boys and one girl from the family as a bargain."

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There is a pervasive disregard for girl's education in India, especially in rural areas and in families with low incomes.

"When I joined the center, my neighbors discouraged my mother from sending me for the classes, and I didn't have much support from my family either," Roshani Shaikh said.

Apps for the slum

Shaikh lives with her family in a room of around six square meters (64 square feet), which includes a bedroom, living area and kitchen. The makeshift homes in Dharavi are no bigger than this and within these walls and in the alleyways, children like Shaikh have been exposed to child abuse, domestic violence, drug abuse and sexual harassment.

"These children have a very difficult childhood, and in their vicinity they experience a lot of violence, which basically suffocates their aspirations," Ranjan told DW.

Read: Doctor fights female feticide by delivering baby girls for free

"I started off by teaching photography and English to the girls, but as I spent more time with them, I noticed that every household had at least one smartphone, and these children were comfortable using them," said Ranjan.

So he changed tack and began teaching them how to code and build mobile applications.

Kids sit on the floor with laptops and paper for a hands-on learning class
In the meantime, Ranjan has opened up the classes to boys as wellImage: DW/N. Ranjan

Ranjan started with the very basics of coding since none of the girls had ever heard of it or even used a computer before.

"I used examples that they could relate in their life. We made a list of all the problems facing their community such as domestic violence, women's security, water scarcity and hygiene," he said.

Mahek Shaikh is one of the now 200 girls Ranjan is training. The 15-year-old built the "Women Fight Back" mobile app with friends at the center.

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"Many women from our community work late nights, and I think that our app provides them better security as they can alert a friend or police through a panic button, send their location or start a loud siren signaling that they are in danger," she told DW.

Confidence booster

Ranjan said he has seen immense growth in Dharavi Diary girls. "They are independent and are actively participating in solving community problems and most importantly, they have a say in matters of their family," he said.

Kids sit on the floor and build a structure in class at Dharavi Diary Center
Some parents are recognizing that it's worthwhile to educate their daughtersImage: DW/N. Ranjan

He also explained that more parents are now opting for educating their girls instead of getting them married at a young age. His charges may indeed be better off.

"Many girls in my community would get married while they were in school and couldn't continue their education, but my mom doesn't even mention marriage now, after seeing me successfully invent things at the center," said Mahek Shaikh.

Read: A goodbye to the big fat Indian wedding?

Last year Dharavi Diary won an award from Google for promoting computer science education, and the girls have been featured in local and international media.

"They are now dreaming beyond the tiny walls of their home and creating an impact not only on their family but their community at large," Ranjan said.

Though Roshani Shaikh aspires to be a fashion designer, for now she is thrilled to be a force of positive change for girls in her community.

"Earlier I couldn't imagine standing in front of hundreds of people and talking, but sharing my experiences at TEDx and other platforms has evoked a new sense of confidence in me."