Leader of Change: Salma Sheikh

Salma Sheikh
Image: WaterAid India

A little bit of guidance and care goes a long way into building leaders. With this belief in mind, a team from WaterAid India’s local partner, Aarambh in Madhya Pradesh, identified people who had the potential to be agents of change in an urban slum.

Salma was born and raised with two sisters and a brother in the 60 Quarter Slum of Bhopal. Her father was the only earning member of her family. Salma was excellent at studies and developed an affinity for sports. But when she turned 18, family pressure led Salma to drop out of school and become engaged to a resident of Pachora, Maharashtra.

Despite external factors, she remained steadfast, joined the Padao Badao group and began educating a group of 15 women. The marriage took her to Pachora, but financial issues saw the family move back to Bhopal. Once she relocated, she formed self-help groups which remain active and are still managed by her.

Today, in her 30s, Salma is the president of the Mohalla Committee of 100 Quarter Slum. The settlement, situated in ward 60 of the city had barely any WASH facilities when Aarambh began working there. Salma emerged as a proactive member of the community, and always came forward during WASH training sessions. She began participating in Aarambh’s WASH awareness programmes and soon began organising community meetings on handling water and conducting water quality testing. She played a key role in organising Community-Led Total Sanitation initiatives, and street plays in her slum.

Salma Sheikh (Pink Saree)
Salma Sheikh (in pink saree) showing a completed toilet in 100 Quarter Slum
Image: WaterAid India

When the idea of a Mohalla Committee was first broached, the community did not display much interest because even though the act for the committee was in place, there was apprehension over receiving rights and authority from the government over any progress initiatives in the slum. It was Salma who took it upon herself to motivate everyone and support Aarambh to register the committee. In July 2014, the Mohalla Committee was accredited. Under Salma’s guidance, the group conducted a survey and prepared a list of homes without toilets. They submitted a demand to the Urban Administration and Development Department for construction, which is currently in progress and even constructed the common sewer line by pooling in resources. When the borewell water was found non-potable, Salma encouraged everyone to construct a platform to help restore the drinking water resource.

Today, the Mohalla Committee and Salma continue working on a range of issues. She facilitates Menstrual Hygiene Management trainings and has conducted sessions in the four local anganwadis and even in other slums along with Aarambh. She champions rights for women who are victims of domestic violence in the 100 Quarter Slum. Currently, the committee and Salma are engaged with securing rights for water supply under the Narmada Jal Yojana and have taken up the issue with the district collector and the BHEL administration on whose land the slum exists. Under the Swachh Bharat Mission, they have helped the inhabitants of the slum participate in a survey for those who need toilets.

Salma Sheikh
Salma Sheikh watches as employees of Municipal Corporation clean a drain in 100 Quarter Slum
Image: WaterAid India

“Some people remain skeptical why I do this work. They think I gain money. But I overlook all the negative views and continue working. There was a time when men would not attend when I would hold meetings. Today they all attend. When I used to organise classes on WASH, and MHM, girls from the community would not step forth. Today they wake me out of my sleep and insist I teach. If there is no water in the basti, or if they need a tap connection or need a form filled, everyone says, ‘Go to Salmaji.’, said Salma Sheikh.

Salma may have had lost out on many opportunities because of lack of familial support and the conservative attitude prevalent in her community. But she is an example of someone who trumped external circumstances to transform her life and emerge as a leader who motivated her community to believe in change.