Girls learn app coding to navigate a way out of their Mumbai slum

Ansuja Madival’s mother, who works as a maid, had never touched a tablet before, so the 15-year-old had to show her which buttons to press. “She was so happy when she saw what I had made,” Ansuja says. “She never knew I was so good at computers.”


No one thought schoolgirls from Mumbai’s Dharavi slum could code mobile apps. The girls didn’t even know what an app was until recently.


But for the past few months, 67 girls have been taking coding lessons at the weekends with a local non-profit, the Slum Innovation Project.


“We learned it so quickly,” says Roshani Shaikh, 14. “Because we’re girls, our parents didn’t want us to do all this in the beginning. They’d say, ‘You need to help with the housework, what will you do with computers?’ Now they say we’ve made them proud, that we’ve made the whole community proud.”


Sapna Helagi, 15, adds: “When I first came here, I couldn’t even use the mouse. I would type only two or three words in one minute. Now, see how fast I am typing.”


Dharavi is home to more than 1 million people, 5,000 businesses and 20,000 small factories. About 90% of the housing in the slum is illegal, and piles of rubbish sit next to open sewers. The slum has come to symbolise the vast inequalities of wealth in India, as well as the aspirations and ambitions of the country’s working classes.


The Dharavi girls saw computers for the first time five years ago. “We had one at school but we could only look, no touching,” says Zaberi Ansari, 15. “I did extra computer classes but it cost 600 rupees [£6] a year and all we learned was [Microsoft drawing programme] Paint. It was Paint for two years, then PowerPoint for two years and you learn nothing because you share the computer, so it’s only 15 minutes a week per person.”


Nawneet Ranjan, from the Slum Innovation Project, which runs educational and sports programmes for the slum’s children, said that at first parents were reluctant to send their girls to lessons. “You know how it is in India – the girl never gets to go to these kinds of classes. If there’s any [opportunity], it goes to the boy. Even if there’s an extra glass of milk, the boy gets to drink it, not the girl.

“The kids here don’t have much. Their parents are taxi drivers, or watch repairmen, or construction workers,” he says. “They don’t learn to dream beyond that.”


Ranjan brought laptops to the slum and started teaching computer classes two years ago, starting with programmes such as Word and Excel, and moving on to more complicated tools. “The girls know intuitively how to use smartphones and tablets. They pick it up easily. I try to teach them using stories so they can remember, and we make apps that help their communities, address problems they have in their daily lives, so they are really passionate about making them.”


Ranjan had the idea to teach code this year, when he noticed that most of the girls had access to smartphones. “I realised that if they had the skills to design apps, maybe they could solve a lot of the problems in their communities,” he says. “Girls using technology used to be almost taboo. They don’t get the same opportunities as boys, and so we thought we’d do a class especially for them.”


In Dharavi, most households have at least one smartphone, even though few homes have basic facilities such as toilets.


Prime minister Narendra Modi’s government has launched huge programmes to promote computer literacy and online connectivity as part of his Digital India campaign, but has focused on rural areas rather than the urban poor.


One of the apps developed by the girls is Women Fight Back, which has a distress alarm and geolocation tool for women who find themselves in danger. Another, Clean and Green, allows the user to take a geotagged photo of rubbish and send the picture to the local municipal authority. A third, Paani, sends an alert when it is your turn to collect water from the communal tap. “We girls spend all day queueing for water,” says Ansuja. “It means we have less time for our studies.”


Roshani and Sapna’s app, Padai, has basic English, Hindi and maths exercises for people who have never had an education. “When our parents came here, we showed them this app. They never finished school, they don’t know that two plus three equals five. So I showed them this app, and made them do the exercises. They were so happy,” says Roshani.

Learning to code and working with computers has taught the girls other skills too. “Our first lesson was using Word, and we had to type an essay with the title Myself. I had never used full stops, commas or anything like that before. I just used to write the words. Now I can use punctuation, and make sentences,” says Zaberi.


“We go home and teach our parents and brothers and sisters what we learn,” adds Roshani. “We taught them how to do their signature; they could never do it before.”


But despite the girls’ efforts, poor Wi-Fi signals and expensive mobile data means few people in the slum are likely to download and use their apps. Plus, smartphones in the slum usually belong to men, and women have limited access to them.


Still, the girls hope their skills will help them when they look for careers. “It’s already helping,” says Ansuja. “At school, my teacher saw me using the computer and she was impressed at how good I was. She asked me where I learned how to use it. I hope I can work with computers one day, and I hope I can use them to help my friends and family.”