That is the Question – To Pee or Not to Pee?

The question isn’t who’s going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me. ~Ayn Rand

Mumtaz Shaikh’s eyes blaze as she speaks passionately about a campaign she has made her mission and she shouts out her ask from the municipal commissioner of the metropolis of Mumbai – “I want the right to pee!” Her demand is for free public facilities for women so that they can urinate safely. “Men in the city have 3000 free public urinals and women do not have a single one! Do planners of towns think we are less human?” she asks. “I want basic dignity for all my sisters in the city who set foot out of the house in dread every day, wondering how they will relieve themselves if the need arises.”

Mumtaz is honoured for her effort

Daughter of Maharashtra

Advocating the need for free public urinals for women

Advocating free public urinals for women

Mumtaz’s journey has been as unique as her campaign. She grew up in a house where daily beatings by her ‘father figure’, actually a goon from the area who coerced her estranged mother to co-habit with him, were a regular serving to her mother. She silently watched from behind the curtain fervently hoping for the violence to stop till one day when the hands stopped pounding her mother, they found release beating down on her petite frame.  In desperation, her mother sent Mumtaz to live in a ghetto with her distant uncle hoping it would give her the much-needed respite, but the relief was soon overcome by deep poverty. Mumtaz’s uncle already had seven mouths to feed and hers was an unwanted addition which strained his meager resources further. She worked hard on household chores to pay back what she could in return for the shelter offered to her, but often went to bed without even one square meal.  Her troubled childhood gave way to an early youth and her uncle married her off to a man from within the community who turned out every bit as difficult as her ‘father figure’ had been. He was extremely possessive and put her under a burqua, disallowing her to even look out of an open window without his consent. It was when she gave birth to her daughter at the age of 16, that it dawned on Mumtaz that if she did not take steps to alter her situation, her child’s destiny may very likely mirror hers. By now, Mumtaz was no longer a child and made up her mind to somehow empower herself, only she did not know how just yet.

The answer came in the form of a Non-Government Organization called (Committee of Resource Organizations ) CORO which entered Mumtaz’s slum community to hold afternoon meetings, once the men were at work, to speak to women on the issue of domestic violence. While her husband was very resistant to her leaving the house without permission, Mumtaz would steal out quietly and join the group of women huddled together to listen to the social workers. Very soon she found herself actively participating in designing small interventions to prevent episodes of violence in the immediate environment. She strongly voiced that all issues of sanitation, violence and illiteracy plaguing her community could only be resolved by the people living there. ‘It is our mess and we have to clean it’. As her belief in the organization grew, her voice became louder and she signed up as a volunteer for CORO. This did not go down well with her husband and there were fights every day. But with the strength of her group behind her Mumtaz fought for a divorce and was able to walk out of her marriage.  She also reclaimed the accommodation that her mother had bequeathed her at an earlier time and put a firm roof over her head. Now there were no chains binding her feet, and there was no stopping her!

She helped to set up over 75 self-help groups within her community to fight domestic violence and support awareness on the issue in the area. Most of these women were from very low-income families and the support from their peers went a long way to provide solutions to their troubled lives. By now, Mumtaz had become a role-model and leader in the cluster she lived in. She was selected for a fellowship by international organization Leaders Quest for her advocacy of women’s rights and her crusade against domestic violence. She also joined the permanent staff of CORO to actively mentor other grass root leaders.

Her constant search for means to improve her fellow women’s lives led her to advocate the Right to Pee campaign which was a very big success. She spoke fearlessly from many platforms and approached the municipality with petitions to address the very basic needs of the women in the city of Mumbai. In 2013, government finally introduced a policy which mandated the construction of a women’s toilet block at every 20 kilometers within the city. The gender budget has also allocated 5 Cr rupees for the construction of 147 toilets which will be specially designed for women. The model toilet is soon to be inaugurated in the Chembur area of Mumbai. Her efforts were widely recognized and Mumtaz was awarded the title of ‘Daughter of Maharashtra’ by her state.

The very community that pointed fingers at Mumtaz for her activism now deeply respects her for standing up for women’s rights and gender equality. She is a true deliberate leader who is setting up models and local solutions that can be replicated to solve similar problems globally. Mumtaz has further made up her mind to contest the local elections in 2017 to take forward her work. Such is the remarkable story of this little lost girl who has gone on to be a pathfinder for millions of women.


“Khoobsurat”: to truly nurture beauty

“There is no exercise better for the heart than reaching down and lifting people up.”
― John Holmes

Najafgarh – A red light district in Delhi into which not too many “decent” people venture. Here thrives the Premnagar Basti Community of commercial sex workers, a sizeable group of young women forced into the industry by desperate financial needs. Most of these women are single mothers to young children who they need to care for by simultaneously giving in to their only resort – Prostitution. They are shunned by society, disowned by their families and often mistreated or looked down upon by even those who employ them. These women have been subjected to severe violence and emotional turmoil and have been forced into believing that they have absolutely no self worth or skill set.

Meet Ashish Solanki, founder of Khoobsurat Foundation, a not for profit NGO commited to the rehabilitation of sex workers in Najafgarh and other districts around Delhi. The Khoobsurat Foundation has collaborated with for-profit as well as other non-profit organizations to design an innovative and self-sufficient module to realize the aspirationsof hundreds of women. Ashish and his team have successfully created a system of dignified sustainable employment by training these sex workers as beauticians and ensuring that they get jobs thereafter. Thus far, Khoobsurat Foundation has rehabilitated over 200 women, giving each a fresh chance to pursue a socially respected career.

Ashish Solanki, Founder, Khoobsurat Foundation

Ashish Solanki, Founder, Khoobsurat Foundation

Women at the Premnagar Basti

Women at the Premnagar Basti

"Khoobsurat" - the Hindi word for Beautiful

“Khoobsurat” – the Hindi word for Beautiful

However, the path Ashish tread on was not an easy one take. More often than not, the very women he sought to help turned their backs on him. “The women had trust issues with us. They were very reserved and did not like interacting with a whole new class of society. There existed a communication gap between two divorced classes of society”, he recalls. However, it was not long before these women realized what lay before them, and readily seized the opportunity. The larger problem though, was the exceeding interference by male influences in these womens’ lives. Many men within the community refused to let women take the skill-set building workshops organized for them, seeing no need for empowerment or rehabilitation. Bound by the impositions of heavily male-dominated society, these women had to put up a tough fight so that they would be allowed to actualize their ambition. On his part, Ashish incorporated the medium of movies to make the women and their husbands understand of that a world of progress and socio-economic advancement existed outside their villages.

As Ashish prepares to join Williams College in August, he has nothing to say about the lakhs of rupees (over $8000) he raised for the cause or the hours of effort that his initiative demanded. He simply derives exhiliration from the smiles of all those women and children who have received a new lease of life through his work. Ashish proves that all one has to do to feel truly, deeply content is be out there to give a helping hand to those who need ot most.

When a Damsel in Distress Dares to Dream

“The idea of perfect womanhood is perfect independence”

-Swami Vivekananda

What happens when you marry off a 16-year-old urban girl, who has never had to do so much as wash a plate, married into a rural family where she is expected to single-handedly manage the entire household? Moreover, what happens when her in-laws begin to harass her for not paying a sufficient dowry? Well, in Asha’s case, the girl emerges from the situation as a strong, independent woman who narrates her heart-wrenching story with a heart-warming smile.

Even before she had graduated from middle school, Asha was engaged to a man she had never met earlier. She was informed that she was to move into a strange village, in a strange state with a strange language, and live in the company and service of complete strangers.

“On the first night I spent in the family, they emptied my suitcase and distributed all my clothing amongst themselves. Even though my parents had paid a dowry well beyond their means, my mother in-law was not satisfied. She locked me in my room in a fit of rage and forbade anyone from talking to me. I cried all night.”

For the first two years of Asha’s married life, her husband was working in a different city. “Those were the most challenging years of my life.” She recounts spending endless days working tirelessly, without exchanging a word with another person. “Even those who offered help were sent away by my mother in law.” She recalls.

One afternoon Asha’s husband returned with devastating news – he had lost his job, the only steady source of income for the family.

The whole family was shattered. Asha realized that this was her opportunity to find a place not only in her family but her society as well.

Although it took a great deal of convincing, Asha’s husband agreed when she proposed that the couple should migrate to Delhi. Asha knew this was her only chance to alter her fate.

In Delhi, Asha found employment before her husband did.


Asha at work

Asha at work

"There is no greater achievement for me than sending my children to school"

“There is no greater achievement for me than sending my children to school”

She was now working as a Housekeeper, using the little she earned to support her family. It was eventually Asha who found her husband a job. Together they began earning enough to afford urban living. Soon they had children, for whose education Asha saved every penny she could.

Today, Asha hopes to establish her own business in tailoring. She has a come a long way from being the outcast of the family to being its greatest source of pride. What is most remarkable is that Asha has no hard feelings. “ My ambition arose from my internal rebellion. For that, I’m only grateful to my husband’s family. “

My game, my rules…and it’s a goal!

A proud Gulafsha

A proud Gulafsha – lovely photo taken by Mansi Midha

In action - lets play ball

In action – lets play ball

In a one room slum in the degenerating settlements of Bhalswa, one of the Indian national capital’s largest dumping grounds, lives a source of true inspiration. Despite living in extreme poverty (her entire family comprising seven members lives huddled together in a single small room) Gulafsha Khan, all of 19 years old, has not only secured herself a college education but is also working as a Community Youth Leader in a non-government organization (NGO) with a single-minded purpose of uplifting the lives of children who cohabit the slum with her.

And she knows just how to motivate them! She builds skill and awareness in them through sports and games sessions conducted a few times every week (using the NGOs researched curriculum of ‘Development through Sports’).  So, in each session, she organizes her little friends in a circle and briefs them, initiates a rigorous game of football or cricket right after, and ends with a debriefing of all the lessons learnt in personal hygiene, environment preservation, regular schooling etc!

In the face of extreme financial constraints, Gulafsha’s parents did the best they could to provide a semblance of education to their five children.  But when she managed to clear high school and expressed a desire to join college, her parents were very reluctant. They did not have the means to support her education, and could not justify it set against a context where marriage is the natural step for a girl her age.

But Gulafsha is no ordinary girl and she believes in carving her own path where there is none!  In order to raise money to pay for her education she began running tuition classes for younger children who needed extra help with their school work. She charged a small amount for assisting them and soon began to earn modestly enough to join college. Simultaneously she also joined the cadres of an NGO working in the area who gave her access to free courses in computer literacy and functional English. Now she could take on the world.

She continues to work relentlessly to break barriers within her community where dropping out, early child marriage and domestic violence are a norm. Often she faces challenges, having to repeatedly cajole parents to allow their children, specially girls, to participate in community sports and to stay in school, but she knows that it is only through continued effort that she can influence the community children and make their lives better. For Gulafsha, no mountain is too high to climb.

Being a Man…literally!


“Above all, be the heroine of your life, not the victim.”
― Nora Ephron

When we least expect it, life sends our way the most challenging obstacles. At age 17, Nisha was anything but ready for what was coming her way. This is her story.

Nisha is a resident of Rathora village in Uttar Pradesh, India. She is the third amongst five siblings. One afternoon when Nisha was in her senior year at school, she was faced with the sudden death of her father, the sole bread earner of the family. In a matter of days, Nisha’s shattered family was driven to the streets. At this trying time of her life, Nisha found herself deserted by relatives and extended family.

Nisha realized she had to take charge of the situation. She could not bear to see her younger siblings forced out of school, and readily gave up her own schooling to earn enough to afford them an education.

Before his demise, Nisha’s father was running a small tea stall outside the police station (chowki) at Chaprolli village. Nisha now resolved to take over this stall. But this was not an easy task. No girl had run a shop around the village before, and she faced stiff opposition from relatives and fellow villagers. In their opinion, a woman’s place was in the home, and the most she could to outside the four walls of the house was attend to the fields. As a result, Nisha was subject to boycott, and whoever she asked refused to grant her the loan she required to reopen the tea stall. Fortunately, an old acquaintance of her father agreed to lend her the 2000 rupees she so desperately required. With this money, Nisha was finally able to start business.

However one problem still lingered – nobody would buy from a stall run by a girl. But Nisha was not one to back down. The solution in her mind was simple: if the villagers wanted a boy to run the stall, they would get one. She cut her hair short and styled it like a man’s. She then borrowed a few of her brother’s clothes. In a matter of hours, Nisha had transformed herself into a rugged young man.

Nisha began running her stall in her newly acquired disguise. Though it didn’t take long for the villagers to recognize her, Nisha had already acquired a reasonable clientele by the time they did. Besides, the villagers gradually began to accept her and were quite impressed by her pursuit. There were instances when she was threatened and harassed by men, but she boldly persisted. Soon enough Nisha could afford to educate her siblings and get her elder sister married into a respectable family. A while later, she even bought herself a motorbike to facilitate the commute from the stall to her home.

Today, Nisha is not only successfully running her little stall, but is also running a parallel business of dealing in gas cylinders. She is a role model to the girls of her village, who aspire to be like her. Her family insists she gets married soon, but she has no such plans.

Nisha’s story is one of admirable bravery and of determinedly seeking solutions. It is not easy to to challenge deep-rooted social conditioning and cultural taboos . Moreover, to sacrifice one’s own dreams so that others can live theirs is a choice of compassion. Nisha is a living example of what one can do with just a little courage, by rising to the occasion and being a man – literally!

A Little Courage is All it Takes

 “You can build walls all the way to the sky and they will find a way to fly above them.

You can try to pin them down with a hundred thousand arms, but they will find a way to resist.

And there are many of them out there, more than you think.

People who refuse to stop believing. People who refuse to come to earth.

People who love in a world without walls,

people who love into hate, into refusal, against hope, and without fear.”
― Lauren OliverDelirium

Candour. Courage. Compassion. Words, which in today’s world, have gained weight but lost hearts to live within. These words were once the strongholds of success. Today, however, the meaning of success has altered radically. In a world where monetary assets govern every action, these words are slowly drifting into oblivion. People of our generation are the first to recognize the heir to a multibillion empire but would cringe when asked to identify a person of real purpose – someone who did his or her own bit to make the world a better place.

My effort is directed towards these people. Young people who have worked tirelessly for a cause – who have fought innumerable odds – to achieve, to grow and often, simply to survive. These remarkable individuals have exhibited the virtues of Deliberate Leadership in their everyday lives, incorporating values like courage, candour and compassion in their daily lives. Through this attempt, I hope to acknowledge a few extraordinary youngsters who have braved society, friends and even family to stand up for what they believe in. These are colleagues and friends who you and I meet everyday. Their courage inspires us, and we wonder why no one has ever acknowledged them. Well, now we will acknowledge them.

It is important for humankind to realize that courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes it is in gritting your teeth through pain, in resisting pressure. Sometimes, it is in the slow walk towards achieving a better life. I invite you to join me in my  “100 Hidden Heroes Hunt” – an initiative that seeks to unearth hundred everyday trailblazers. A journey that hopes to inspire, overwhelm and, in its very own way, reward.