Searching for Space in the Slum Community

Janelle Funtanilla, AIF Clinton Fellow 2017-18

On the Ground in India: Perspectives from American India Foundation’s Clinton Fellows*

Back in the middle of October, I began doing field work for my project with the Foundation for Social Transformation: Enabling Northeast India (FST) in Guwahati, Assam. As part of my work plan, 100 surveys would need to be administered, interviews from girls in both the school and community completed and analyzed by the end of November.  The data collected would be used in a community assessment that includes the socio-economic and health status, as well as interests of adolescent girls living in the Bhaskar Nagar slum community. This information is intended to help inform the life-skills program that I am designing, and will be useful in future projects that my host organization decides to implement in this community. Through my past jobs and experiences, I have had lots of opportunities navigating unique field environments. Through those experiences I’ve come to know that no two environments are exactly the same, but the challenges of doing field work are universal.

My lens of doing data collection in the slum is through that of socio-economic inquiry, focusing mainly on the people and the issues they face, and this is what I expected to encounter during the field visits. What I failed to prepare for was the issue of poor infrastructure and haphazard spatial patterns of the environment in which they live. In Guwahati, the slum environment has of constant build up in the drains/sewers, copious amounts of pollution, close vicinity to a dumping ground, poor maintenance of structures, and inadequate sanitation in/near living spaces. Furthermore, due to the rapid migration into the city, paired with the rising costs of living, more and more people have been settling in the slums, leading to overcrowding of the small living spaces available. These environmental factors have influenced the plan for data collection, and so adjustment and flexibility were required, mostly on my part.

These pathways were crowded with people when girls were getting interviewed.

Accompanying me to the field were my co-workers and local college interns, and although I couldn’t conduct the surveys myself due to language constraints, I was there to write observations of the interviews and to mitigate any unforeseen complications related to data collection. To me, the most poignant observation of working in the slum, of doing field work in this specific context, is the lack of space. When I say space, I mean in terms of physical, social, and personal.

What I’ve noticed was the lack of space to interview a girl. The lack of space to hear her without a million other voices telling her what to say. The lack of space for girls to congregate outside of the home, with all the available public spaces being occupied by males. The lack of social space for a girl to claim her independence. The lack of safe spaces to move, to navigate in her own community, and the prohibition and avoidance of being outside after the sun goes down. Even the school playground on which I thought would be a safe place to conduct the activities, has not been maintained, and the conditions are dismal. All of these things are disheartening, and something I wish I could change on my own. Despite growing up in a multi-generational household myself, and sharing a room for most of my adolescent life, I at least had a space to call my own in my home, which is something that is a luxury in this context.

FST Intern interviewing a girl in the community.


During the first field visit to test out the questionnaire that I had put together, I gained a better understanding of the space constraints. We were huddled in one of the alleys, while my colleague asked a girl if she could interview her for the project. She gave her consent, but two ladies who were nearby, started to creep closer to see what was happening. As we were in a public area, lots of people who walked by had stopped, stared, and listened in on the conversation. I wasn’t even the one getting interviewed, and I started to feel uncomfortable. A crowd started to form, with about five other women, two children, and a man nearby who was asked politely to leave, but didn’t go very far. My co-worker was trying to get the girl to open up, but the women kept interrupting, telling the girl what to say, and adding their own opinion, from what I had observed and what I was told later in our debrief session.

During the following field visits, the interns were faced with that same issue of lack of privacy and spaces to conduct the interview without external distractions. The girls were unable to be interviewed without the influence of her parents or friends who stood near. Crowds formed wherever we interviewed the girls, but most people were more curious than resistant to our presence, fortunately.  Even in the school, where I could observe the Class 9 girls getting interviewed, there were constant interruptions from their friends who were waiting nearby. However, at least in the school, I was told the girls were a lot more open with their answers and more honest about their home environment, compared to the girls that were interviewed in the community.

In my mind, the lack of privacy was not only frustrating, but also concerning in terms of how much of the data was being compromised by external forces. Back home, where it is easier to enforce confidentiality and interviews could be conducted behind closed doors of an office or inside a home, this has been something I needed to think about. Furthermore, as this phase of my project nears completion, it brings about the next challenge on what physical space I will have to conduct the actual life skills sessions, and finding where there is a safe place for the girls to play the sport and do physical activities. As my mentor N. Goswami put it, “There is no privacy in the slums, no such thing as personal space.” So this will be the next task for me to tackle, in finding and creating a space for the female adolescents of this slum community.

School playground that is currently an empty lot for cars, the ground is not suitable for playing sports.

About the Author
Born and raised in Honolulu, Hawai’i, Janelle is a licensed social worker with a specialty of developing children and families. After receiving her Masters in Social Work from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, she joined the United States Peace Corps as a Youth in Development Volunteer, and was placed in the rural Phayao province of Thailand. Her proudest accomplishment during her service, was running a girls empowerment program that included participants from all over the Northern region of Thailand. Previous work experience include working for the Hawaii State Legislature as a Legislative Aide, Special Activities Coordinator for Gaining Early Awareness and Readiness for Undergraduate Programs (GEAR UP), and an Education Paraprofessional in Hawai’i public schools. Janelle has a breadth of experiences abroad, including a semester in London and completing an intensive practicum in Baguio, Philippines. She has a strong interest in empowering the youth and hopes to apply her skills to help the youth of India.

*A previous version of this article was originally published on 11/24/2017 at American India Foundation.

AIF’s William J. Clinton Fellowship for Service in India builds the next generation of leaders committed to lasting change for underprivileged communities across India, while strengthening the civil sector.



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