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After Mumbai Floods, the Work of Rebuilding Family Life Falls to Women

In the wake of the floods that hit Mumbai last week, women in the city’s slums are working to restore their homes and care for family members without access to basic sanitation or clean drinking water.

Written by Priyanka Borpujari Published on Read time Approx. 5 minutes
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Since the floods last week, Sayeeda Khan and her daughter have been clearing, cleaning and drying the family home. The stain on the wall shows how high the water rose before receding. Priyanka Borpujari

After the flood waters receded from Sayeeda Khan’s home in the Mumbai suburb of Kurla, her work began. Since then, the 47-year-old mother of three has been sorting, cleaning and drying her family’s few possessions, with help from her 14-year-old daughter, while her husband and two older sons are out at work and in school. “My husband spent a lot of money elevating the house to a higher level, but it doesn’t seem to protect us,” Khan said, as she sat on the floor of her tiny home, leaning against the pink wall where the stain from the flood reaches up to about one foot from the floor.

The story is the same for women living in slums all over the city. On August 29, Mumbai bore the brunt of 5in (13cm) of rainfall and experienced monsoon-season flooding that has already caused devastation and death in other parts of India, as well as Nepal and Bangladesh. The rains paralyzed the city, flooded homes and businesses and left 14 people dead, two of them toddlers.

The flooding is over, but the job of restoring homes now falls largely on the women and girls of the family. And as they work to get back to some semblance of normal daily life, one of the biggest problems they face is a lack of sanitation – an issue that affects millions of people in India at the best of times and is only exacerbated by the destructive force of the floodwaters.

Khan has a bathroom in her 12 square-yard (10 square-meter) home – the typical measurement of a house in a Mumbai slum – but that space does not accommodate a toilet. The community toilet is a two-minute walk from the house, through dark and narrow lanes. When the rains came last week, the toilet block was the first to be flooded. Then the water started coming into the homes. “The water first enters from the bathroom, but at least this year it did not seep in from the floor, like in previous years,” says Mantasha, Khan’s daughter.

Even before the flooding, Mumbai’s community toilets were inadequate and, in many cases, unusable. According to the Observer Research Foundation, about 78 percent of community toilets in the city’s slums lack water supply, 58 percent have no electricity, and many don’t have proper doors or facilities for women to dispose of sanitary napkins. As they recover their homes from the flooding, women often have nowhere to relieve themselves, putting them at risk of bladder infections and other health complications. “We are used to controlling our bladders,” says Khan. “The men can go [to the toilet] anywhere.”

Khan walks through the dark, narrow pathways to the community toilet block, which was the first thing to flood when monsoon rains hit the city on August 29. (Priyanka Borpujari)

Days after the flooding, families like Khan’s are also facing another health risk: tainted drinking water. Before last week, they could drink water straight from the tap, but ever since the floods, the water has been muddy.

Khan’s neighbor, Sameera Ansari, 31, said some families are boiling water twice before drinking it. This means more work. “Children do not drink hot water, so we have to factor in time to boil the water, cool it, refrigerate it until it can be used,” she said. Some families in Kurla turned to buying bottled water, but the shops soon ran out.

When the rain started on August 29, Ansari headed to the school about a mile away to pick up her two children, while her sister-in-law Tayyaba stayed home with her own 3-year-old son and began moving clothes, utensils and other important items up to higher shelves. By the time Ansari brought her children home, the house was filled with two feet of water. Later, water began to trickle in from previously unseen pinholes in the roof.

The electricity went off at 5 p.m. and only came back on at midnight. The women’s husbands finally reached home, having waded long distances through water, but their father-in-law’s blood pressure went up as he watched his house become submerged, and he had to be hospitalized the next day.

“Our mother-in-law now has to be in the hospital all day, and that’s added stress,” said Tayyaba. “We have to clean the house, buy groceries, cook, feed the children, and pack a tiffin to my mother-in-law in the hospital.” Drying clothes has been an arduous task, with little sunlight creeping in through Kurla’s densely packed houses.

Chanda Khan, another Kurla resident, also has to look after an ill family member on top of making her home livable again. Her husband suffers from diabetes and as the waters started rising “he mostly sat on the bed, as I spent all evening bent and pouring water out of the house,” she said, knowing her efforts wouldn’t make much difference. “I was doing that for my own mental satisfaction, [feeling] that I was doing something to protect our house. The water was not going anywhere.” When her husband went back to his shoe shop the next day, Khan continued to suffer from joint pain and skin allergies.

For Brijesh Arya, founder of the local homeless charity Pehchaan Foundation, the women who are suffering the most in the wake of the flooding are those whose families live on the streets. “What is one to do when the plastic roof and walls are blown away in the wind? So many families stood outside shops for hours, waiting for the water to recede, and with most shops shut, they went hungry for two days,” he said.

Many of the city’s homeless are daily wage workers, and the flood meant the loss of two days’ worth of food. Pehchaan Foundation – along with other charities and individuals – has mobilized to deliver cooked food and clothes to the homeless, but it barely scratches the surface of the number who were affected. According to the 2011 Census, there are over 57,400 homeless people in the city. But Arya said the charity’s own estimate is about 250,000.

“I have observed that, in other Indian cities, one would not see as many women living on the streets as in Mumbai,” he said. “Many of the women on the streets in Mumbai are women who were born on the streets, raise their own children on the streets and even die there.”

Slums like this one in the Mumbai suburb of Kurla were worst affected by the flooding. (Priyanka Borpujari)

The water may be gone for now, but Mumbai is prone to flooding – last week has been compared to similarly devastating floods in 2005, in which at least 450 people died. Many women in the city, especially those living in impoverished areas, know that the homes they are working so hard to restore could one day be underwater all over again.

“It seems like the city was flooded for just one day. But for us women, the impact lasts much longer,” said Sayeeda Khan, fighting tears through a shy smile. “What should we save first: the mattress on the floor, or the clothes or the grains. Or do we first ensure that the kids don’t play in the dirty water?

“And even after the water has receded, we have so much work to so. The stench of everything rotting away tells us that no matter how much we try, our lives are precarious.”

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