Young girls in India's largest slum are learning to code

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Families living in filth without access to clean water or sanitary facilities, inhaling air that ranks among the most polluted in the world—all while lacking proper nutrition or medical care. That's daily life in Dharavi, a slum that spans a 500-acre section of Mumbai, India. The slum, one of the world's largest, is home to about 1 million people. Now, thanks to the efforts of a local filmmaker, some girls in the impoverished area are learning an in-demand skill: coding.

"These girls live on the fringes of society and they're exposed to a lot of problems at a young age. They are caught up in a cycle of hopelessness," filmmaker Nawneet Ranjan told TakePart. In 2014, he launched Dharavi Diary: A Slum Innovation Project, which teaches girls in the community to code and create apps.

Ranjan first told the story of the slum in Dharavi Diary, a documentary he made in 2010. The film depicts the limited resources and grueling obstacles present in the community, and it's success inspired Ranjan to try to make a more tangible difference for the girls living in Dharavi. In 2014, he launched the Slum Innovation Project. Ranjan told TakePart that the goal is to arm these girls with the skills they need to be change makers for Mumbai.

"Technology can help us challenge the status quo and engage the larger community to serve a larger problem," said Ranjan. Or—many larger problems: the poverty cycle, domestic violence, child abuse, drug abuse, menstruation, child marriage, city infrastructure, the list goes on and on. So why give girls the tools to build apps rather than, say, a clean water filter?

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"When a person gets sick you can give them medicine, but you need to provide education that prepares them to make a difference in the future," said Ranjan. "They can design products eventually for their own communities."

Rajan said that even in the slum there is typically one smartphone per family. The girls use the MIT App Inventor to create apps that directly address major issues within the slum, such as the lack of a clean water supply or infrequent trash collection—problems that go beyond Mumbai. About half of the more than 17 billion people who call India home live in poverty and only a third of the population has access to traditional sanitation, according to the Water Project. Seven out of every 10 households in rural India have no access to electricity.

The girls also created Women Fight Back, an app to address women's security in the slum. It allows the user to share her location through a text message whenever she goes, and has a distress alarm so she can call for help if she is being followed. Though the app originated in the Dharavi community, it is useful in many parts of Mumbai, since more than 60 percent of the population lives in slums, said Ranjan.

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A fire in January ravaged the homes of some of the girls, burning everything their families possessed, including their smartphones. Late last week Ranjan's campaign to help the girls' families met its fund-raising goal of $10,000 through crowdsourced donations. Along with replacing the fire victims' lost possessions, the money will go to a scholarship to fund the education of five girls from the slum and to help create a STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts, and mathematics) lab where they can continue to learn coding for mobile applications.

Ranjan hopes that many of the project's students will be inspired to help with Mumbai's infrastructure problem by using their technology skills toward design and development of low-cost, sustainable housing.

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Find out about the slumming situation in Mumbai:

Housing Policy and Slums in Mumbai

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