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Making human rights real

Volume 6 Number 12 December 13 2010 - January 9 2011

Dr Kiran Martin recounts her life journey, work with NGO Asha on behalf of Delhi slum-dwellers, and what others can learn from Asha’s model of human rights in action, in conversation with the Nossal Institute for Global Health’s Elizabeth Morrow.

Twenty-two years ago, Kiran Martin, a medical graduate from Delhi University, entered an Indian slum for the first time in an effort to stem a cholera outbreak. Shocked by the sight that greeted her and moved by the plight of the poor, Dr Martin founded Asha, meaning “hope” in Hindi.

Since its inception, Asha has become an acclaimed non-governmental organisation that provides health, legal, educational and financial services to 400,000 slum-dwellers in Delhi.

Dr Martin’s success in improving life chances, livelihoods and equity led the Indian government to give her one of the country’s top civilian awards, the Padma Shri.

Why did you start Asha?

Well, I come from a middle-class family. When I was doing my residency slum patients would come to public hospitals and I would observe that they were desperately poor. I felt that it was a much better use of my life to do something to address their health needs rather than just be one additional doctor where there are so many for the middle-class. A lot of doctors leave India because there are better opportunities, and there’s a lot of money to be made in India if you’re a private doctor. But nobody ever goes to slums. I just felt drawn and that’s why I went and how I started out.

Was it hard to overcome your initial reactions to your first visit to the slums?

I was horrified that people were living in such an environment, and that was much greater than any personal distress I felt at being there. Obviously, it was challenging because of the smells, and you have all the excrement and garbage around. I was totally shocked that they should be living there day in and day out.

What does Asha do and what are its goals?

Asha’s primary mission is to help transform the lives of the urban poor, those living in slums. There are over 100 million urban poor people in India. Urban development was not something that was talked about much when I started. The focus was on rural development. But nowadays people are recognising that urban poverty is really important. Over our 22 years we have evolved a model that works and has been able to demonstrate a major impact.

One of Asha’s goals is to share its experiences with a global audience. What lessons are there for Australia?

The face of poverty may be a bit different in Australia, but the basic mindset of a poor person is not very different. I think the challenge is to break hopelessness and passivity, and give people hope. Collective action and community organisation are principles that are valid anywhere. Partnerships are important so that poor communities understand they must be at the forefront of change. Handouts are very disempowering.

Do you think being a signatory to human rights treaties encourages India to take action to protect the rights of slum-dwellers?

India is a signatory to many human rights instruments, but if the human rights of the slum-dwellers had been recognised, residents would have been given good quality housing, water and sanitation, and their education and health needs would have been taken care of.

And what about India’s proposed constitutional guarantee on the right to food?

There are educational policies and state budgets to help slum-dwellers, but there is corruption and a lack of interest. Interests are focused on private enterprise and expansion of the economy. And many constitutional guarantees are not put into practice. Eighty per cent of slum children under five are malnourished. There’s enough food for the whole population, but the poor can’t afford it. They have to spend about 80 per cent of their income buying food.

What role does gender inequality play for slum-dwellers?

Gender discrimination is an integral part of slum life. Often girls are discarded before they have a chance to live, through foetal sex determination, leading to sex ratios of around 750 girls to 1,000 boys in some states. Having a girl means lots of expenditure on her dowry, so girls are seen as burdens and boys as assets, because a boy’s wife will bring money with her. Decisions are made by men or the extended family, not by girls. Even the health of a girl is not as valuable as the health of a boy. The amount of food given to her is not the same. The educational levels of boys are much higher. Domestic violence is common and so is sexual abuse of girls, so there is a huge amount of work to be done in empowerment of women and girls.

What are your current dreams for Asha?

We’ve already got about 400 slum children going to university. That can be scaled up; if there were a group of children in every slum going to university they would be role models, and then that becomes an aspiration for other children. I am very keen that thousands of children receive the opportunity of higher education. This is actually their passport out of poverty, because nothing short of this is going to help them get out of the slums.

Dr Martin shared her practical approach to human rights at the University of Melbourne’s 2010 Chancellor’s Human Rights Lecture in October. Watch at: