*The name Asha, translated from Hindi, means ‘hope’.
Asha could have been anywhere between 12 and 40, and you would have believed her either way. She was small and petite. Her eyes drooped, the only giveaway of her age. And yet, they gleamed with a child-like optimism that characterises her.
She was excited to see me again. When I visited her last time, I had helped her 6-year-old son learn his alphabets. She began discussing the plans she had for his education with me. She led me through a long corridor of women, lazily watching the latest developments in a popular soap opera on a small TV. “It’s giving them all kinds of bad ideas”, Asha commented, as she led me to her dari. There, I found her son, playing with a single red crayon, furiously colouring a portion of the tile he was sitting on. Asha laughed.
After some discussions on enrolling her son in school, we began discussing her health. She had mentioned feeling nauseous when I visited her the last time, so I asked her about it. She revealed that the nausea has persisted, and was also accompanied by body-aches. She often woke up to her dari hastily moved her clothes on the wrong way and marks on her stomach and thighs. “I keep wondering if I’m sleepwalking? Does that happen, didi?” she inquired. I suspected this couldn’t be sleepwalking, so I asked her to explain her situation to me in detail.
“How long have you been living here, Asha?”
“Close to 14 years. I was a very young girl when I came.”
“Have you experienced anything like this before?”
“Yes, didi. When I first came, I was experiencing similar aches. Sometimes, I would even wake up to my vagina bleeding. When I asked the other women about it, they said it was normal for a girl my age. But my vagina used to bleed for more than a few days a month. But it stopped after some time, so I dismissed it.”
“Can you recall doing anything at night that may cause these symptoms?”
“Not really, didi. In fact, whenever I experience these symptoms, I wake up with my head feeling very heavy. It takes a few minutes for my vision to clear up. Everything seems foggy and distant.”
“Have you visited a doctor?”
“Have you seen the rush at a government hospital? I’m surprised nobody dies while waiting in those lines. And the doctors have no respect for people like me. All they do is hurriedly check for fever and dismiss us, to make sure they see as many patients as possible and fill up their pockets.”
“How long have these symptoms persisted for?”
“They’re sporadic, but I’ve experienced them ever since I came to the shelter.”
She continued coddling her son in her lap. I was baffled. I decided to discuss her symptoms with the shelter nurse, to gain a professional perspective. I excused myself from her company and headed for the main office.
“Why were you speaking to that randi?” one of the older women remarked, as I walked towards the office.
Understandably, I was taken aback.
“Why are you calling her a randi?” I angrily enquired.
“Don’t you know? She is known as a randi here. Naresh and his gang routinely molest her at night. The fool has no idea. I tried some of the stuff he uses on her – it really knocks you out.”
“Is she the only one?”
She laughed, shook her head, and walked away.
For most women living in shelters, there is often no difference between having that roof over your head and sleeping on the roadside. Countless women are victims of sexual assault and harassment, simply because they are such easy targets.
Delhi celebrates its ability to provide many of its homeless the essentials of roti, kapda, makaan, not realizing that they have forgotten to provide its homeless their most valuable right – the preservation of their human dignity.
The Wonder Woman Project works on promoting safe menstrual hygiene practices among homeless women in Delhi. But over the past year, the bonds that we’ve developed with the women we work with have helped us identify more troubling concerns, relating to sexual abuse. You can help support our work by donating to us: https://www.impactguru.com/fundraiser/help-women-living-in-homeless-shelters-in-delhi
Watch a video on our work:
Visit our website to read more about our work: www.afsindia.org
Listen to the ‘Meeting Asha’ poem: https://youtu.be/8tHUeeJ-h8A