This post has been self-published on Youth Ki Awaaz by Abhishek Jha. Just like them, anyone can publish on Youth Ki Awaaz.

Why Homeless Women In Delhi Are Choosing Pavements Over Govt’s Night Shelters

More from Abhishek Jha

She has the option to stay at a night shelter next door, but Kamala Bajrangi prefers to brave out the Delhi Winter on the pavement instead. A toy seller by day, the middle aged woman hates the restrictions of mobility life in the shelter demands. The ‘dry rotis’ served at the shelter aren’t a huge draw either.

“Bade, bade makaan ban gaye. Hamein kehte hain, ‘Jaao rain basere me jaao. Jaao toilet me jaao’ (Huge buildings have come up and to us they say, ‘Go to the night shelter. Go to the toilet’),” a fuming Bajrangi, who sleeps on the pavement outside Hanuman Mandir at Connaught Place told me.

A homeless woman sitting with a child in her lap under a flyover at night.
Through chance, circumstance or compulsion, thousands are being forced to live on the street – under flyovers, over bridges, footpaths. Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

Bajrangi isn’t the lone woman in the city who chooses to sleep on the pavement leaving the security of a shelter. Through chance, circumstance or compulsion, thousands like her are being forced to live on the street – under flyovers, over bridges, footpaths – in the freezing Delhi winter.

Official estimates for the number of homeless in the city vary extremely. While the Supreme Court Commissioner’s Office pegged it at over 2 lakh in 2011, the census estimated it as 46,724 in the same year. There are 261 night shelters operating in Delhi this winter, which include 21 meant solely for women. Some of these are permanent buildings, some are portable buildings (called Porta Cabins), some are located in subways, and temporary tents too are being set up by the government to help the homeless in the winter. While the shelters have the capacity to accommodate over 21,000 people, daily occupancy reports show that only a third of that capacity is being used. On the night of December 4, for instance, only 510 women took to the 21 women shelters, which have a capacity to accommodate 1204 women.

While the Delhi government has been taking steps to ensure nobody sleeps in the open in the cold Delhi winter, the stories of the city’s homeless women present a different picture. They are not only reflective of a concern that the government only remembers during winters but the harsh circumstances the women face throughout the year. The cold, for them, is just an added inconvenience.

A case in point is Garima Singh*, who lives with her son just outside Hanuman Mandir. Her belongings propped against a police barricade, she sits talking with a couple of other families who have arranged their mattresses and blankets around the barricade. She asks me whether talking to me is going to solve anything for her, but then invites me to sit down to talk.

Singh’s position is unique, but not unusual. She wasn’t always homeless. She had a home and a family. Then she underwent a surgery that disabled her and made her nearly immobile. She lost her savings, and her son was forced to stop working to look after her. For an hour or two, her son goes out to work for wages but on most days they survive on alms and donations.

“Look at this! Can one spend the winter under this blanket? Isn’t this a sack?”she asks, showing me a thin blanket that someone donated. She says she has no hope from the government. Her relatives, the mother-son duo tell me, are capable of helping them, but for the past two years they haven’t told them about their whereabouts because they feel ashamed about their circumstances. “What will I say? That I live outside a temple?” Singh asks.

The government also runs rescue teams to bring the homeless on the street to the shelters and Singh too was taken to the Bangla Sahib shelter last winter. “They would come to ask me every other day whether I needed a shelter. I said, ‘Listen, I cannot get up. This is my son and he helps me with ablutions. Let us use the cabin,” she says. But the cabins were occupied already and she had to live outside.

A tent build by the government.
The number of shelters built by the government has increased from 46 in 2008 to 262 this year . Photo credit: Abhishek Jha

Singh’s story repeats itself over and over again at over-bridges, the flyovers, the pavements, the subways – the city’s dark underbelly. The number of shelters built by the government has increased from 46 in 2008 to 262 this year and now clinics too are being built near these shelters but there still are thousands of women living outside the margins.

Under flyovers between Hauz Khas metro station and Munirka, for instance, live different kind of hawkers. The tattered mattress on the concrete is their bed and the flyover is their roof. Some surround themselves with unused, broken furniture and cardboard as an added protection.

Maya’s first response on seeing me under the flyover is to plead that they don’t commit crimes and that they are honest people. The police are a bigger threat to them than the cold.

On the other side of the flyover, divided just by an intersection, there is a large shelter, but the family says they can’t go there because they don’t get along with the other group. That they can’t take their belongings with them is a more probable reason.

“It is because of these belongings that we have built these jhuggis,” says Manju Devi, who stays with her family under under a flyover near the Akshardham metro station, surrounded by grass several feet tall.

“We have belongings, pots and pans. They don’t let us take those inside. Where will we go then?” Manju Devi’s husband adds when she explains that they don’t get to cook food inside the shelter. An air-conditioned Rajdhani Express whizzes past the make-shift homes of the people when I reach there. As they live without electricity, Devi worries about snakes and insects biting them.

“When there are snakes or insects, when our children have trouble sleeping, then we go to the shelter,” she tells me. A portacabin for women is a stone’s throw away from where these families live but they don’t go there. They only use the toilet outside the shelter regularly.

“It is being built. It is not yet complete. I spent the entire winter here listening to these excuses. Spent the entire summer right here. Even in the rain sometimes somebody would hold an umbrella and I would keep lying here,” Garima Singh told me at the Hanuman Mandir. Although the government machinery wakes up during the winter, for those like her, every season brings problems related to homelessness.

Instead of setting seasonal shelters, the government would do well to think of a concrete policy to deal with the issue, keeping in mind the practical realities of those living on the streets. The women, though, have no hope that it will ever happen.

For women like Manju Devi, who has been homeless since she moved to Delhi in 2003, nothing seems to have moved over the course of the decade. As Bajrangi, whom I met at the Hanuman Mandir, says resignedly, “So many have lived here and so many have died”.

*Name changed on request.

You must be to comment.

More from Abhishek Jha

Similar Posts

By Anica Bushra

By Anshu Jain

By Ifra Ali

Wondering what to write about?

Here are some topics to get you started

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

Share your details to download the report.









We promise not to spam or send irrelevant information.

A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

Sign up for the Youth Ki Awaaz Prime Ministerial Brief below