Holding a pink peony

Photo by Matthew Henry / Unsplash

Unhoused women in India: Overlooked, vulnerable, and in need of support

An intersectional and coordinated response is needed to implement policies successfully, say experts.

Pampa* (name changed for privacy), aged 22, sits in a parking lot beneath an overpass in a busy area of Kolkata city, India, caring for her newborn son. She changes his diaper and cleans his face with a cloth. 

Next, she dips her finger into a container of solid black kohl and applies a large dot to her son's forehead to protect him from the evil eye. Afterward, she gently places her son on a soft baby bed, surrounded by a mosquito net. Her voice often gets drowned out by the constant honking of passing vehicles.

Meanwhile, her three-year-old toddler, Sayan, plays with other children in the lot, sometimes veering dangerously close to the edge in the way of oncoming traffic.

Like many unhoused people, Pampa has grown up moving from one pavement to another till she found a semi-permanent refuge under the overpass. The city's homeless population occupies the area under major overpasses that offer some protection from the elements.

However, the available space is dwindling rapidly as local authorities expand and install multi-level parking facilities to accommodate cars and two-wheelers flooding the city.

According to the 2011 census, India had 17.73 lakh (one lakh = 100,000) unhoused people, with over 700,000 of them being women.

In India, homeless women and girls arguably occupy the lowest rung on the ladder of discrimination, says Brototi Dutta, advocacy advisor, Asia Department, Center for Reproductive Rights.  

Many live in constant fear of sexual harassment, and some face domestic violence from their partners. 

A report, "Understanding Homelessness in Delhi," published by the Indo-Global Social Service Society (IGSSS) in 2019, revealed that among the homeless women surveyed in the national capital, 85 percent had deep-seated fears of sexual harassment. Over 70 percent of respondents admitted they would refrain from helping a victim of harassment, even if they witnessed it.

Homeless individuals struggle to access essential facilities like toilets, showers, and clean water, forcing them to use open spaces, bathe less frequently, and rely on public taps. Women, in particular, face increased vulnerability to various forms of violence and abuse due to the lack of secure facilities for changing and bathing in public areas.

These women often lack awareness or struggle to access government assistance programs designed to help them due to a lack of required documents. Frequent raids by local municipal authorities further complicate the situation. Many of their belongings, including identity documents necessary to access government benefits, are confiscated during these raids.

"We do have laws and policies in place," says Dutta. The challenge, she says, arises due to a lack of disaggregated data and effective methods to reach out to homeless women and girls, who are often mobile and move in and out of shelters.

Access to proper medical care is also a challenge for homeless women. In 2021, Pampa became pregnant unintentionally when she couldn't afford contraceptive pills for a few weeks. Realizing the challenges of managing two young children in her circumstances, she sought help from a local doctor to terminate the pregnancy.

The prescribed medications should be taken within 70 days of the last menstrual cycle, but Pampa was already five months pregnant. As the abortion kicked in, she experienced excruciating pain and severe bleeding.

"She bled profusely, and her eyes disappeared into sockets," recalls her mother.

Many of these women are trapped in generational homelessness, missing out on opportunities.

Shampa, aged 19, who grew up homeless, used to stay in a "home" run by non-profit organizations and NGOs. The government of India funds these homes under the Mission Vatsalya scheme for children needing care and protection. Until 18, the children are educated and given vocational training to rehabilitate them for a better life. 

Shampa excelled in her studies, and the NGO invested 100,000 rupees ($ 1200) to train her as an optometrist's assistant. However, once she turned 18, she could no longer stay in the shelter. She joined her family under the overpass and had to commute a long distance for her training.

After a few months, she eloped with a homeless boy. Although the NGO was horrified at her squandering a great opportunity, they still encouraged her to complete the course. Shampa did not heed their advice. She smiled awkwardly and looked away when asked why she hadn't completed the training. After a few seconds of pause, as I pressed her for an answer, she said, "I didn't feel like doing it."

Shampa's sister, Sonia, too, lived in a home since she was in second grade. She turned 18 while still at home, and as per the rules, she had to leave. She returned to live with her family under the overpass. She enrolled in a nearby school but finds it hard to concentrate on her studies due to her living situation.

She misses the disciplined life at home. She used to wake up at 5 a.m. and follow a schedule that gave her ample time to study. 

The West Bengal state, of which Kolkata is the capital, runs a conditional cash transfer program to encourage girls to stay in school and pursue education while promoting skill development and preventing child marriages. An income certificate is mandatory to qualify for this program, primarily targeting the economically disadvantaged. Proof of residence, a salary certificate, and income tax return acknowledgment have to be provided to obtain this certificate.

Homeless people do not have a fixed address, work odd jobs, and sometimes resort to begging. Sonia's father is a rickshaw driver and doesn't make much. Most of what he earns is spent fuelling his alcohol addiction. Her mother supports Sonia and her siblings by working as domestic help. Under the circumstances, they are unlikely to possess a bona fide income certificate. To obtain one, they have to run from pillar to post, not knowing who to approach for help.

"Homelessness is not just a housing issue; it intersects with a range of other problems," says Dutta. 

The challenge, she explains, arises from a lack of data and effective methods to reach out to homeless women and girls, who often move in and out of shelters. 

"There is also a lack of awareness within the community. Proactive efforts are needed to engage with the community, and provider bias and stigma are prevalent," she adds.

Deepali Vandana, Co-Founder and Managing Trustee of Urja Trust, which works with young homeless women, attributes the absence of official data to the lack of a comprehensive census since 2011. 

"Even if one attempts to estimate this population, it is challenging due to their limited visibility. Homeless women often remain unseen by the system, making developing a proper counting mechanism difficult," says Vandana.

A structured mapping exercise is the need of the hour to ensure services reach homeless women. Vandana also emphasizes the need for specific policies dedicated to homelessness. 

"Currently, our nation has drafted a youth policy, but it does not include specific provisions for vulnerable groups," she says. 

Ensuring diversity and inclusion, says Vandana, is crucial for reducing the vulnerability of young women from diverse backgrounds at the prevention level. However, no policy addresses any of these concerns.

"The youth policy does not extensively outline the state's responsibility in this matter, leading to potential confusion. When the state's role and accountability are not explicitly stated, the justice system may not be effective in cases of violence. Extra effort is needed to guarantee equity for the vulnerable," she adds.

Moreover, she points out that youth policies tend to focus more on empowerment and may not adequately address the needs of those who are vulnerable or experiencing violence. 

"There's a gap in support systems within the youth policy," she says.

Given the issue's significance, Urja Trust is currently working on a comprehensive policy that will consider the intersection of the various problems connected to homelessness, such as caste, gender-based violence, and mental health.