Empowering women, children and adolescents of Dharavi to improve their lives (VIDEO)

Empowering women, children and adolescents of Dharavi to improve their lives (VIDEO)

Pooja PatelUpdated: Sunday, July 07, 2024, 06:23 PM IST
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Vanessa D'Souza, CEO, SNEHA |

One woman’s diligent work, passion and desire to bring about change in Dharavi and her consistent advocacy and outreach programmes led to the establishment of an organisation that has been changing lives of people living in one of Asia’s latest slum settlements. Dr Armida Fernandez, a neonatologist and former dean of Sion Hospital, started SNEHA (Society for Nutrition, Education and Health Action) in 1999. 

Farah Khan, filmmaker

Farah Khan, filmmaker |

Established to improve the quality of public health services and build  healthier lives for urban women and children in vulnerable communities, the NGO has benefited thousands. 

“In Dharavi, the first programme that we started was on prevention of violence against women and children, by providing counselling services to the survivors of violence, which, over the years, branched into creating awareness on gender-based violence via street plays, street art campaigns or group meetings; mobilisation of community and community engagement,” says former banker Vanessa D'Souza, now the CEO of SNEHA.   

These programmes aimed to make people understand not only physical violence, but also emotional and financial violence, during an era when people didn’t discuss or acknowledge gender violence. With tie-ups with KEM, Sion and Nair hospitals, under various programmes, the NGO helps victims of domestic violence with medical as well as legal aid.  

SNEHA works in vulnerable slum communities like Dharavi, Mankhurd, Malwani, Kurla, Bhiwandi among others

SNEHA works in vulnerable slum communities like Dharavi, Mankhurd, Malwani, Kurla, Bhiwandi among others |

Another programme that had tangible effect in Dharavi is their neonatal care work, tackling the silent illness of malnutrition. “We have been consistently working with pregnant women to educate them about pregnancy, make sure they attend antenatal clinics and ensure that they deliver healthy babies in hospitals. Over a period of time we found that while women were delivering healthy babies, children were slipping into malnourishment,” elaborates D'Souza, who joined the organisation in 2013. 

In 2007, they started their programme on malnutrition with just two centres. In 2011, they adopted a systematic and large malnutrition programme across the entire area of Dharavi with 300 Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) anganwadis. “This, at that time, was the largest urban malnutrition programme in the country. In 2011, in Dharavi, malnourishment prevailed at 18 per cent,” says D’Souza. 

The NGO’s work has benefitted thousands over the last 25 years

The NGO’s work has benefitted thousands over the last 25 years |

They followed UNICEF’s framework to tackle malnourishment; gave medical nutrition therapy, which is therapeutic food to severely malnourished children; and screened every single child to check their weight and height each month. “We intervened for four years and at the end of the period, we were able to bring down malnourishment by 28 per cent,” she says. Today, SNEHA works with only 55 anganwadis in pockets where malnutrition persists.  

SNEHA’s work with children extended to ensuring better reach of immunisation drives too.  

Recognising that adolescents in vulnerable communities needed special care, SNEHA launched a project tailored to empower young people, integrating reproductive health, menstrual hygiene, anaemia, BMI, emotional resilience, mental health and an attempt to create civic conscious citizens among the youngsters. “We have been able to work not just with the adolescents, but with all the stakeholders — parents, schools, ICDS and health systems. So they can access services from these health facilities,” says D'Souza. 

In the last 25 years of its existence, with several more programmes and after facing challenges at every step, SNEHA has been successful in creating a visible impact. Their work has not only spread to other parts of Mumbai, but in partnerships, has also reached other cities in India.  

Filmmaker Farah Khan, who has known founder Dr Armida Fernandez for several years and has watched the organisation expand their work under her and her successor Vanessa’s guidance, wishes there were more NGOs like SNEHA. “They work in the most vulnerable slum communities like Dharavi, Mankhurd, Malwani, Kurla, Bhiwandi among others, improving the health and nutrition of women, adolescents and children. Being a mother of young children, I understand the pressures of looking after kids and I really appreciate the support the team at SNEHA offers to the mothers and children in these slums,” says Khan.  

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