Dignity: Delhi, India

This week I had the impossibly good fortune of spending a seemingly impossible three days in India, in Delhi, with the Dell Women’s Entrepreneur Network. While I will write more on the very impressive conference later, I’m up early, jet-lagged and thinking about the range of my experience, from a stay at the extraordinary Leela Palace to two brief but rich visits with Save the Children India. It’s the time I spent with them, in a slum near the Okhla Industrial Area, that I’m thinking of now.

To say that India is full of complexity is an understatement; I visited at a moment when even the breaking news about the place was wholly incongruent. This week I have been reading and thinking about two different reports: a TrustLaw poll saying that among the countries in the G-20, India is the worst place to be a woman. The other, a study commissioned by Dell, paints an entirely different picture, saying that India is the best place to be a woman entrepreneur.

Although the two studies have divergent scopes and samples, I couldn’t help but hold both in my mind on Sunday when we visited a South Delhi slum near one of the country’s largest industrial areas. As we walked through the narrow streets I was struck not by the blinding heat, not even by the scale of the poverty, but by the dignity of the young girls we saw, like the one pictured above.

I have never before visited a development project like this, Save the Children’s Mobile Health Unit, with a group of people. I was awed by the reach of the vans, which bring essential maternal and child healthcare services and hygiene education to 100,000 people across the area.

I was also struck by the uncomfortable, inevitable cultural exchange that our visit brought to the area. Many in our group pulled out cameras immediately, snapping photos to the children’s delight and the adults’ indifference. I hesitated at first and then joined them, taking my own photographs, wishing most for more than a glimpse into their lives.

What can we give these children? What, even, can we say? At once I wanted to apologize for my presence and to participate—showing the children the photos I had taken, as for them, the sight of their sunlit faces reflected in living color seemed to be a delightful mirror rather than an untoward gaze. Still, as I look at the photos now, reflecting on the experience, I am left with the image of the girls who did not come forward to interact with the well-meaning tourists, but rather to continue with their days, with their work, with their lives.

They are the ones who are our best hope—the ones who are working as community health workers with Save the Children or other, local groups, who are bringing their children to be weighed and measured through the organization’s malnutrition intervention.

I’m left with a question: How can we best enter the situation, so that we can see beyond the statistics to a single person, like this girl in pink, to understand how both of those realities—the devastating inequity and the unimaginable promise—can coexist and how we can best help? For me, for now, I have an implausible wish, to sit on the cracked doorstep of a neighboring home for as long as it takes for her to come out and give us the answer.

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