On a cold, gloomy winter night, the scenario for homeless women seems that much more bleak

Between home, the workplace and venues for recreation, women are hardly safe in the city. Not many would dispute this statement. Then what happens when home, the workplace and recreation venue bear just one address — the footpath? As winter’s dismal shroud continues to press down on the National Capital Region, the reports of temperature variations of a degree or two up or down don’t affect the pavement dwellers, who bear the brunt of the cold wave. A number of night shelters have been set up across the NCR, many of them under the aegis of the Delhi Urban Shelter Improvement Board. Many are meant for men only, while only some are designated as family shelters or specifically for women and girls.

The city’s reputation for both heartlessness and abuse of women being what it is, it seems strange there is no provision for women in so many shelters.

Across the road from the busy New Delhi railway station, where homeless women and children are likely to be found in large numbers, stands a dilapidated tent on an island in the middle of a maze of roads. Run by the Abhivyakti Foundation, it is for men. The tent is nearly camouflaged, what with the greying sky, the smoky air and the non-stop multi-vehicle traffic. But inside it is peaceful, blankets piled up along the sides and a table and register near the entrance, mattresses on the ground and not much else, as is the case with most such shelters. The staff politely explains there are shelters for women in Connaught Place near Bangla Sahib gurudwara as well as near Jama Masjid — both a long trudge for a homeless woman in need of shelter.

Incidentally, Bangla Sahib itself, though a landmark, does not offer night stay facilities though its langar — free food for all — is running regularly. “This is a VIP area,” a volunteer told me earlier. “So we can’t let people stay the night. But Gurudwara Sisganj has a separate room for women.”

As we talk, a small commotion begins outside the tent. A cycle rickshaw pulls up with what looks like just two blankets thrown on its seat. But there is a woman under them, so small and weak that her trembling barely moves the blankets. Soon a woman in plainclothes whom the men describe as the beat officer arrives and seems to be trying to persuade them to admit the woman. But the shelter workers are clear: this is for men only. The beat officer decides the woman needs hospitalisation anyway, and makes further arrangements with the rickshaw puller. I leave them, shaken but partly relieved that the much maligned law and order authorities also sometimes take their duties to citizens seriously.

Further down the road is another shelter ‘home’, this one a bright blue tin shed. This too is for men only. I am directed to try in Chandni Chowk or at Gurdwara Sisganj to find a place a woman can stay.

As I exit the portacabin, the driver of the cycle rickshaw I hired to take me across the area advises, “Sisganj will be the best place for you. Why do you want to risk these shelters? At the gurudwara there is chahal pehal all the time. I have seen women entering at all times of the night.” I tuck it in memory as one more example of how strangers can be well-meaning, and move on.

I hire another rickshaw and enter the choked road towards Jama Masjid. Alighting after a 40-minute ride, queries about the rain basera (night shelter) elicit positive replies. As the azan from the mosque’s loudspeakers rolls across a dusky sky, the shelters — barely shanties — come into view. Managed by Sur Nirman Educational and Cultural Society, there are two divisions. One is for men while the other is a family shelter.

Sajida Khan, Chief Functionary of the Society, has been in charge of this setup for two years, helped by Riyasat Ali, Jahangir Khan and Wasim. Earlier she was responsible for a similar shelter in the city’s red light area. “I have started a kitchen here too. Both locals and outsiders can come, of any faith,” says Sajida. “Our NGO doesn’t have much money, so we get donations in kind from various people. Shraddha, from the organisation Samarpan, has promised us dry rations for three months. Every 10 days she sends us rice, dal, etc. After that we will see. We also get lots of help from St Stephen’s hospital’s Mother NGO.”

Women and young girls sit at a stove on a pile of rubble preparing dinner. Sajida points out the wooden poles lying on the ground. “I persuaded some people in construction work to donate the wood, so we can set up a canvas roof for the kitchen,” she says optimistically, adding “Sushmaji from Samarpan comes regularly to check on the food.”

Security is always an issue. Riyasat Ali, caretaker in charge of the men’s section, has become the father figure of the whole camp, because of his seniority and sense of responsibility. “I make rounds several times a day as there can be trouble any time,” says the elderly man, whose duty is at night. “Sometimes fights break out. We don’t allow smoking or drinking, but even a drunkard can’t be left out in the cold. So I have to keep an eye.”

Many of the women and children are rag-pickers. Sajida also supplies them with sanitary napkins and gives legal and life counselling. “I set up a school but the teachers don’t stick around. They are scared off by the environment,” she laughs. Last year a resident delivered a baby. “This year she is due again, despite all my advice,” sighs Sajida.

How many homeless women must be deprived of even this much support? Sajida says, “I live in Darya Ganj. I have failed to persuade the women there to come here. They sell vegetables on the pavement there. Who will look after their goods? So they sleep there in their thin clothes. I have applied to the government to set up a shelter in that area but have no reply yet.”

Two girls approach Sajida gingerly to ask for some flour. “You want to make your rotis separately?” “We want to make sweet rotis,” explains one of them, Hajra. Riyasat Ali arranged the marriages of Hajra and her friend at the shelter. But while she has been widowed, her friend is now divorced and both are back at the camp, all within two years. “We want to study,” says Hajra. Sajida says she needs a bridge course to catch up with her education. Riyasat Bhai notes they must be encouraged while they are still enthusiastic.

At this shelter with no heaters, there is a rare warmth of heart. Leaving the residents to dinner, I return to the street wondering just how many drops of compassion will be needed to make this nation flourish equitably one day.

On the margins

In Sahibabad in the NCR, there are several shelters started by the Nagar Nigam for men. At the Nagar Nigam zonal office at Katori Mill, Mohan Nagar, officials, when asked if there are any facilities for needy women, admitted they had never thought of such a requirement.

A rain basera — a structure of tin with durries on the floor and roof of tarpaulin sheets —has been set up at the threshold of the stadium in Noida’s sector 21 with temporary toilets. However this too is for men.

Sur Nirman Educational and Cultural Society invites donations in kind — bedding, durries for the floor, rations, sewing machines — or volunteers to teach. Contact 9213665908 or 011-23260447

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