Humanity has always been on the move. Across centuries and around the world, migration in response to immediate need changes families for generations.
Over the last century, urban migration has shaped India’s present and future. Explosive economic growth — sparked by fiscal reforms, foreign investment, and a technology boom — propelled millions from rural villages to cities in search of a better life.
As they fuel the economic engines of India’s major cities, those who relocate often trade one set of challenges for another. City dwellers breathe polluted air and are at risk for violence, but they gain upward mobility and the chance to confront cultural traditions.
Children are the first to thrive — or suffer — in a new environment, even if the choice to migrate was made in their interest. Are they better off in cities, with more opportunities within reach? Can historical patterns of poverty be broken in this context?
Meet families in two cities navigating this balance.
At the edge of a busy main road in Agra, Solenka Kumar’s pushcart vies for the attention of passing pedestrians. She sells a rainbow of colorful bangles, and business is good as women purchase new accessories ahead of the Diwali festival.
Cars, rickshaws, cows, tuk-tuks, and bicycles all jockey for position on the crowded street while Solenka’s small daughters dart around their mother’s pushcart, dangerously close to the traffic.
It’s just after 2 p.m., and the girls, Kashish, 5, and Ani, 4, have finished their class at the anganwadi. Too young to be in school, their options for the afternoon are to play near their mother’s cart as traffic whizzes by or play at home, where there’s no supervision.
Neither option is entirely safe. Solenka and her husband, Vinod Kumar, 33, live in Agra’s Nagla Mohan neighborhood with their four young daughters. Narrow alleys separate multi-story buildings that crowd out the sunlight.
They live in a rented space on the second floor of a house — a small, bright blue room where the family of six sleeps together on one bed, along with concrete outdoor space for cooking.
Vinod moved from Ganjapur, Rajasthan, in 2002 in hope of finding a better job. He worked as a mason there, and Agra’s shoemaking industry held the promise of better work and higher wages. He splits his time at two shoemaking factories and earns between 50 to 200 rupees a day (US 75 cents to $3).
Solenka, 31, grew up just 20 minutes from Nagla Mohan in a slightly more affluent family. Her uncle arranged her marriage to Vinod when she was 20, and she joined her husband in Agra.
The marriage was a “difficult adjustment for me,” says Solenka. “When I was growing up, I was unlimited. But then I had to run a house on little [money] — I went from a lot to a little.”
Their financial troubles multiplied with each daughter they had. Though their four girls are still young — only the eldest, 11-year-old Kamya, is old enough to be in school — Vinod and Solenka already worry about the four dowries they’ll be responsible for.
“As soon as a girl is born, you think about a dowry,” says Solenka. “Society thinks girls are a burden.”
For poor families, the looming reality of a dowry when a daughter is born can be especially daunting, but parents of all socioeconomic backgrounds spend years saving up for the jewelry, cash, household items, and even motorbikes they’re expected to give to their son-in-law’s family before a marriage takes place.
It’s one on a list of social and economic reasons why many families across India prefer sons over daughters, who are sometimes seen as burdens who don’t contribute financially to the household. This cultural belief can lead to child marriage — once a girl is married off, there is one less mouth to feed.
Vinod and Solenka had a son, born after eldest daughter Kamya. The baby lived eight days before he died of pneumonia.
“My mother-in-law thinks we should keep trying to have a son,” says Solenka, but each pregnancy has left her weaker. “In Indian society, there is a drive to have a boy.”
Vinod doesn’t share the same perspective, but his mother remains adamant, and her opinion carries weight.
His wages are barely enough for the family to live on. But because Solenka is a member of a women’s savings group supported by World Vision, she qualified to receive the pushcart and an initial inventory of bangles to sell.
Vinod isn’t entirely supportive of his wife’s work. The same social norms that reinforce a preference for boys over girls also discourage women from working outside the home.
Solenka says he feared what people will think of him and his ability to provide for his family if they saw her working. But she doesn’t care if she’s seen as a disgrace. Like millions of parents across the globe, the couple does what they have to do to provide for their children.
She’s committed to providing a life for her daughters that more closely mirrors her own upbringing. “I always wanted to do something for my household,” she says, “and now I have the opportunity with the cart and bangles.”
Solenka plans to expand her business to include marigold garlands, used as traditional decorations at festivals and weddings, and sell in a different area with more foot traffic.
Her contribution to the household income alleviates some of their financial pressures — and the couple would have likely faced even more challenges if they had stayed in Ganjapur.
Vinod would be earning less as a mason than he does making shoes, and the opportunity for Solenka to generate extra income outside the home would have been nonexistent.
Now, their children’s needs are met — but that wasn’t always the case. Before Solenka was earning income with the pushcart, they couldn’t afford nutritious food for their daughters. When Kashish was 2 and a half, she became malnourished and was put on a feeding plan at the anganwadi to get her to a healthy weight.
It’s hard to imagine the playful 5-year-old was once listless and lethargic. Her personality perked up once she gained weight and her mother learned to cook more nutritious food, like the green vegetables she now adds to most meals.
Kashish now bounds around the neighborhood, full of energy and curiosity. She skips down the concrete paths of Nagla Mohan toward the busy street where Solenka stands with her pushcart.
Though they will likely produce dowries for their daughters, Vinod and Solenka are showing Kashish and her sisters a commitment to family, working hard in whatever ways they must to provide a better life for their children.
Growing up watching her mother work — outside of their house, interacting with customers, and making any money she can — models for Kashish a different life, one where she can make her own decisions instead of following society’s expectations of what girls should be.
It’s 7:30 a.m. in Agra, the city in northern India home to the Taj Mahal, and the first wave of tourists walked through the monument’s entrance gates an hour ago at sunrise. About a mile away, in a neighborhood called Shambu Nagar, 9-year-old Preeti Sholanki is finishing her breakfast.
Life spills out of Shambu Nagar’s simple mud-walled structures, topped with tarps or tin, and onto its bricked paths. Old men brush their teeth as chickens stroll by; women trade neighborhood gossip just yards from children bathing.
A medley of smells — flatbread studded with onions cooking over open fires, sewage sitting in the drainage canals that line the pathways — envelops the neighborhood as Preeti’s sisters help her get ready for school.
Her family is more than her parents and siblings; there are four households containing dozens of aunts, uncles, and cousins. All are descendants of Preeti’s great-great-grandparents who migrated to Agra from Dhoda, Rajasthan, about 150 years ago when drought and famine swept across western India.
As her ancestors packed their things to leave their homeland in the 1800s, they couldn’t have envisioned Preeti, generations later, packing her schoolbooks into a backpack. They left Rajasthan to survive. But today Preeti, her basic needs met, leaves home each morning in pursuit of much more.
After carefully pulling her hair into a ponytail and putting on her backpack, she joins her friends Kiran and Roti to walk to school. It’s about a 20-minute walk — first across a dirt field strewn with trash, then through a maze of streets — until the trio in tidy matching uniforms reaches the shady square where their government-run school sits.
“Education is providing a way to improve life,” says her father, Om Sholanki, 40. And for his family, there is room for improvement.
Om attended school through fifth grade. Like many families in Shambu Nagar, he earns a living by making and selling “hunters” — Indiana Jones-style leather whips — to tourists outside the Taj Mahal. Each one costs about 400 rupees (US$6.10) in materials and takes Om and his wife, Kaushul, six hours to make, and Om sells them for whatever price he can get. Sometimes it’s as little as 100 rupees (US$1.50); on a good day, he sells 10 whips and covers the cost of materials.
Handling leather made from cows, believed to be sacred in this majority Hindu society, makes the family outcasts — and keeps them in poverty’s grip.
“Every day you dig a well, you drink,” he says, speaking of the daily struggle to provide for his family. He says that each time he interacts with a tourist, he’s reminded how education can take his children to a different level in life.
He didn’t always believe this to be the case. It was the combined effort of his sister, Leela, and World Vision volunteers that convinced Om of the importance of education.
Leela, 32, is one of two people in this neighborhood of about 800 who completed high school. She doesn’t work making whips like the rest of the family. Instead, she helps run the local anganwadi, teaching basic education to children who aren’t in school, as well as leading nutrition and health classes for pregnant and lactating mothers.
“Most of the younger generation is illiterate, and they can be taken advantage of,” says Leela. “I thought, 'How will change come in my community if I’m not investing in them?'”
She knows the opportunities available to those who complete their education, and she wants that for the young people in Shambu Nagar. In five years of working at the anganwadi, Leela has helped enroll 44 children in formal school, including Preeti.
Leela says, “I might not live to see the change that will happen in the community” as a result of her efforts, but she’s already seen the change in her niece’s life.
“I want to be like my aunt,” says Preeti. The third-grader is off to a good start. Her favorite subjects at school are Hindi, math, and English, and she enjoys studying.
“I will study more than my aunt,” says Preeti with a shy smile. “School life is a better life.”
Taking advantage of every opportunity, Preeti goes to a World Vision-run remedial education center for an hour after school. About 30 children play educational games and complete math and language exercises — all designed to reinforce what they learn at school and fill the gaps of what isn’t taught. They also have some fun, laughing through games of hopscotch and hide and seek.
Back at Preeti’s house, her older sisters, Kiran, 18, and Pushpa, 16, aren’t in school. They dropped out several years ago when many of their classmates did the same, and now they spend their days helping Kaushal around the home. But since Om and Kaushal have come to value education and the opportunities that come along with it, Om has hired a tutor for Kiran and Pushpa to get back up to speed and re-enroll in school.
The tutor’s fee — 250 rupees (US$3.87) per month — stretches the family’s finances. Money is a constant worry and challenge.
“I work on a daily basis, and I’m the only one earning,” Om says. “How can I save or invest?”
He wants more for his children than just survival, and his support of their education counts as a different kind of investment.
“Every parent wants a good home for their kids and an education. My desire is that they study. Our life is gone but we want a good life for our kids,” he says, echoing the attitude across centuries that spurred his great-grandparents to move to Agra.
Part of a good life in their culture entails his daughters making a good marriage, and poor families are more likely to marry off their daughters at a young age. But in this family, two factors lower Preeti’s risk of child marriage. Her parents didn’t marry as young teenagers — Kaushal was 18 when she married Om, who was 20 — and Preeti is in school with the full support of her parents.
With marriage far from her mind, she dreams about helping others and becoming a teacher, like her aunt.
“Once I grow up, I want to improve my community,” Preeti says.
For now, she’s like any other 9-year-old after school: dancing around her house with cousins and sisters, wondering what’s for dinner (she hopes it’s dal makhani, her favorite dish), and doing homework. After all, she has nine years until high school graduation.
As Varsha Srivastav and her younger brother, Aditya, walk home after school, they know what they’re coming home to: an almost empty house. They’re the equivalent of latchkey kids — both parents are away at work during the day, so the children are on their own until about 5:30 p.m.
The 11-year-old girl and 7-year-old boy make their way from the school, which sits on the eastern bank of the Yamuna River, across from the Taj Mahal in Agra. They pass houses, temples, busy streets, and, just before reaching their house, a pond of standing water covered in trash.
Their older sister, Pooja, 15, will be home when Varsha and Aditya return from school. She was pulled out of school several years ago to care for a sick aunt, and she’s never gone back. She’s alone at home all day.
Being home alone in Shambu Nagar, the neighborhood where their family lives in Agra, isn’t safe. With its blocks of crumbling brick homes just big enough for sleeping and cooking, most of life is lived in the open, including bathing, playing, and studying.
Alone at home without a parent, the siblings are easy prey for trafficking, child labor, and assault.
“While I’m working, I’m always worried about my children,” says their mother, Anita. “I have a girl who is an adolescent and people know that she’s home alone. Who knows what they’re thinking.”
Anita, 40, used to work as a housemaid for a wealthy family, but she lost that job and now works in a factory that makes grommets for tents. She leaves home at 8:30 a.m. to walk to work. The journey takes her across a bridge that spans the Yamuna, heavy with foot traffic and train tracks. The bridge, on one side, offers a perfect view of the Taj Mahal’s white marble domes.
Anita’s wracked with guilt about leaving her children alone at home, yet she has no other choice: Her husband, Moolchand, works pulling a rickshaw and doesn’t earn enough to sustain the family of six. He makes 6,000 rupees a month (US$92), but he rents the rickshaw for 50 rupees a day (US 75 cents).
As difficult as it is to make ends meet, the family’s situation was worse before they migrated to Agra 15 years ago. Anita and Moolchand, 50, came from a district in northwestern Haryana state called Fatehabad seeking better job opportunities.
In Fatehabad, Moolchand was a nut roaster, and the work was based on a barter system — there was no exchange of money. At one point, he says, the family went eight days without food. They had no toilets or electricity.
“Here, at least, we can give the children food,” Moolchand says.
Financial difficulty drove their decision to marry off their two oldest daughters, Preeti and Anjana, as young teenagers. Anita was also married at 14 because of her family’s hardship, and she had her first child two years later.
“I want my children to be more wise and informed, so they are able to live a good quality of life,” says Anita.
With two teenage daughters already married, it’s likely the same fate awaits Pooja, despite Anita’s wish. The family’s poverty, Pooja’s lack of education, and cultural tradition form a combination ripe for child marriage.
With Varsha and Aditya in school, there’s more possibility for a different life from their older sisters. But their attendance can be sporadic, and Aditya often begs his mother to let him stay home. Today, she gently chided him to go; his unhappiness made it clear he often gets his way.
In the morning, Anita makes tea for the family and prepares lunch for everyone to take with them to school and work — today it’s lentils, rice, potatoes, and cauliflower. Later in the day, the children cook dinner for themselves on the small silver propane stove that sits on the floor of the family’s one-room home.
Unlike other families in Shambu Nagar, the family keeps to themselves — it’s just the six of them. There aren’t friends, neighbors, or extended family stopping by or checking in on the children at home.
Another threat to their safety: The twice-daily trek they used to make to a field of tall grass to use the bathroom. The girls feared men and snakes hiding in the grass — both real possibilities — until World Vision built the family a toilet two years ago.
“We feel safer now,” says Anita. “You’re not publicly declaring to everyone that you’re using the toilet. Now we feel like we have privacy.”
She faces a difficult decision every morning: Stay at home, ensuring her children are safe, or walk to the factory and work long hours in hope of lifting the family out of poverty, leaving the children unsupervised. Both options have short- and long-term consequences.
Moolchand and Anita made a similarly difficult decision to leave their rural village and move to Agra. The trade-off solved one problem — food — but introduced the issue of safety and security for their children. It’s a choice they likely would make again for their family’s basic survival.
About 25 yards from where Varsha Singh sits poised with a paintbrush in her hand, a train rolls by, shaking her family’s home. The commotion doesn’t bother Varsha, 12. She dips the brush into bright vermillion paint and brings to life a colorful pattern on a simple clay pot — one of many ways her handmade decorations make an otherwise plain house beautiful.
For Varsha, art imitates life. Her entire family are agents of change in their neighborhood, Raj Nagar, a section of Agra where poverty is widespread and the main industry, other than tourism related to the Taj Mahal, is shoemaking. Children often drop out of school and work to help support their families, many before they learn to read or write.
The family isn’t without their own struggles. But despite financial hardships, her parents, Jawahar and Vimlesh, take advantage of every available opportunity to better their kids’ lives — starting with the decision to migrate to Agra 25 years ago.
Originally from Sultanpur, a small city in the far eastern part of Uttar Pradesh state, Jawahar, 46, was a day laborer. In Agra, he makes shoes, but it’s not steady work. He hasn’t had a regular job in three months, and he takes out loans when his earnings — on average, 6,500 rupees a month (US$99) — aren’t enough make ends meet.
He was 24 when he married Vimlesh, who was 14.
“I was petrified” at the thought of marriage, Vimlesh says. She was in eighth grade at the time and dropped out of school to run her new household. In India, 18 percent of girls are married before they turn 15.
“I didn’t understand what marriage was, and we fought a lot,” she says. “I have made a pact with myself that I won’t marry off my girls before age 20. They need to be more wise about life.”
For Varsha and her sister, Ashu, 14, life follows a different path than their mother’s.
The sisters, less concerned with running a household, focus instead on keeping up with their studies — Varsha excels in both art and math. Extracurriculars include a children’s club where they learn about and advocate for children’s rights and a child monitoring program called Smart Child.
The Smart Child program trains teenagers — chosen by local World Vision staff — to ensure sponsored children are in school, look for signs of abuse and child labor, and establish trust among neighbors.
Through this, Varsha and the other Smart Children, including her sister, learn how to interact with adults, develop leadership skills, and increase their confidence.
“Before, I kept to my family,” says Varsha. “But I’ve been more outgoing and created a sense of responsibility. I care about these issues.”
Her mother agrees: “Her sense of confidence was lacking, but now she is more bold,” says Vimlesh. “Her leadership qualities are being developed.”
The same can be said of Vimlesh. Since she’s become involved in changing her community, especially through a savings group where she’s been elected president, “I feel more open, I feel more comfortable talking to people,” she says. “Now whatever I’m thinking, I’m able to say.”
She cringes thinking of how meek she used to be. “Don’t remind me of how I was when I was young!” she says, laughing. “I used to cover my head and face. I wouldn’t make eye contact, I was shy and submissive, and I was embarrassed to go outside the house.”
Vimlesh and Jawahar see literacy and education as the gateway to a better life — a life that escaped them after dropping out of school in eighth and fifth grades, respectively.
“I send my kids to school because I want them learning at a young age,” says Vimlesh. “Because I want things to be different for them, I will push them to study as long as they can. Education is the transformation for having a brighter future.”
She worked with local World Vision staff and volunteers to spread this message to other parents, personally enrolling 20 children from Raj Nagar in school.
Despite their progressive thinking on education, cultural norms that favor sons over daughters remain strong enough for 9-year-old Nikel’s education to take priority over Varsha’s and Ashu’s.
He attends a private school — a cost the family can’t easily afford, so Jawahar took out loans to cover tuition. To his parents, it’s worth the added financial strain.
The family subscribes to a newspaper — a rarity in this neighborhood — and oldest son Yogesh, who is in 11th grade, can often be found reading it in their small concrete courtyard.
Varsha’s own ambitions make up for her parents’ focus on Nikel and Yogesh’s educations.
“It’s all about putting your heart and soul into your studies,” says Varsha. “In 10 years, I want to be working in a bank.”
If Varsha reaches her goal, in a decade she could be working at the same bank where her mother’s savings group does business. In the meantime, she’ll canvass her neighborhood, bolstered by her newfound confidence to help improve life for others.
A threatening hand grabs Arti Yadav by the shoulder. The 16-year-old escapes the hold with an elbow strike to her attacker’s head, stopping just short of contact. As quickly as the move was made, Arti’s serious face falls, and she and her friend, the “attacker,” both laugh.
There’s been no fight or disagreement. Arti and a handful of other teenage girls, dressed in tidy maroon and white uniforms, are practicing self-defense techniques at a park in their neighborhood, Madanpur Khadar. They have to be prepared in case a “teasing” incident turns physical.
Harassment is one of many challenges girls and women face in Delhi, a sprawling city of 25 million people where Uber drivers navigate the same streets that cows meander freely. Families like Arti’s, who migrated from rural areas, struggle with a clash of cultural expectations and urban realities.
For her parents, Ramkrit Yadav and Lalmati Devi, migrating to Delhi 30 years ago was the first step in changing their children’s future. They’re overpowering poverty and harnessing the opportunities a city like Delhi can provide — and the change took less than a generation.
Concrete and cinderblock houses up to five stories high line narrow alleyways, including the street where Arti lives with her parents, three sisters, and younger brother. The tall buildings block out all but patches of sky, which is sometimes shrouded in thick, barely breathable air.
Ramkrit and Lalmati came to Delhi in 1986 from Azamgarh, a small city of about 111,000 people east of the capital in Uttar Pradesh state. Ramkrit’s father was a farmer whose yields weren’t enough to sustain the entire family, so the couple chose to move to India’s capital.
For 30 years, he’s worked as a master cutter at a clothing factory. On his most productive days, he earns 460 rupees (US$7).
“Parents always feel they have no support if they have no sons,” says Arti’s sister Renu, 19. “Our father is very supportive and treats us as equals.” But, she continues, “Our mother is always talking about how she has only one boy, and she’s constantly after Rinku to get her married,” because Rinku is 21.
Their parents had an arranged marriage when Ramkrit was 14 and Lalmati was 10. Though the legal age for marriage in India is 18, child marriage remains a significant problem, especially in poor families.
Their daughters, however, have traded child marriage for college textbooks. Since the siblings became involved with World Vision five years ago, they’ve slowly blossomed from shy to strong, changing their father’s perception of his daughters.
“I have seen a lot of change, positive change, in my children’s lives,” he says.
Ramkrit participated in World Vision workshops and trainings for parents, learning about the importance of education and community involvement for his children.
“I definitely want to go to college after school instead of getting married,” says Arti.
The talkative 10th grader likes studying English. She’ll likely pursue the same field of study as Renu, who is in the first year of courses toward a general bachelor of arts degree.
“Lots of girls sit at home and don’t go to school,” Renu says. Her goal, she says, is “to be a teacher — a teacher at a school and also teaching needy students out of my home.”
It’s not just cultural traditions that keep some girls in Madanpur Khadar home-bound. As teenagers and young women, Arti and her sisters face challenges of urban life every day that threaten to derail their future plans — especially unwanted harassment from boys and men.
“Boys skip school and hang around, not doing anything,” says Renu. “They comment on appearance and say derogatory terms. It’s vulgar and makes girls into objects. It affects their sense of worth.”
Two years ago, Arti and her friends Nisha and Vijeta were walking along the bank of the nearby Yamuna River, stopping periodically to draw their names in the sand. A group of boys saw them and followed the girls, taunting them by calling their names they saw written in the sand. As the situation escalated and the girls feared for their safety, they ducked into a friend’s home to get away.
Because of incidents like that, World Vision staff partnered with the Delhi police and arranged for 250 girls in the neighborhood to take self-defense courses, where they learned techniques to escape physical assault and the tools to confront and report harassment.
“On the first day, we were sore from learning the moves,” says Arti, laughing. “After doing the course, my self-confidence improved. It gives me more confidence when I’m out of the house because I know how to handle myself.”
In the years since the harassment incident, Arti and her sisters have taken control of their own lives, empowered by programs like self-defense classes, vocational training, and youth clubs. With the confidence they’ve developed, they’re helping children and teenagers in Madanpur Khadar affected by child labor, abuse, exploitation, and child marriage.
Renu’s a member of a group that monitors the neighborhood for child rights violations and advocates on behalf of children vulnerable to child labor, abuse, and trafficking. Rinku teaches sewing and craft classes to girls who aren’t in school.
Arti leads one of 32 children’s clubs in their area. Each has a different specialty, and Arti’s club, named Star Children’s Club, works with children who scavenge trash or live in the neighborhood dump.
Loads of garbage arrive several times a day, piled high atop rickshaws and tractors. It’s a place of ramshackle tin structures with tarp roofs and trash and broken glass littered on the ground — but for an hour each afternoon, Arti and her 11 fellow children’s club members transform it into something else.
Every day a handful of them walk to the dump. They teach numbers and both Hindi and English alphabets, then lead the kids in a drawing exercise to express their hopes, challenges, dreams, and issues they face. They sing songs to teach the importance of hygiene and handwashing. There are lollipops and games, laughing and clapping.
The role Arti and her friends play with the children here is the same that World Vision staff fulfill for Arti and her family — a familiar face, reassuring presence, unwavering encouragement, and helping hand.
Her father’s face lights up when he talks about the change he’s seen in his daughters as a result of their involvement with World Vision. Before, Ramkrit says, they “didn’t have dreams, they didn’t trust. They were in this room only, these four walls. They didn’t interact with neighbors or friends.”
Now they can visit other places and change their thinking. They have dreams now and have the confidence to move around and command their own lives. They can talk with anyone. Like how a lamp brightens the darkness, the girls keep the honor of the house.”
Once afraid to leave her house lest boys harass her, Arti walks confidently into the dump for an afternoon session with the children there, empowered by her own transformation.
She now chooses her own path.
Nineteen-year-old Shivani Swaroop works in a small cubicle at a travel agency in Delhi, her phone buzzing nonstop with calls from clients or hotels. Like many interns her age trying to land a job in a desirable industry, she puts in long hours and takes on extra assignments to learn as much as possible.
Though she spends her days thinking about luxury hotels, plane reservations, and travel arrangements, Shivani spends her nights in a different world.
Two hours of travel time and 22 miles across the city — through traffic-choked roads and record-breaking air pollution — the college student lives with her mother, Anita, and brother, Nitil, in Madanpur Khadar, in one of Delhi’s biggest resettlement colonies.
Two nights before, the three celebrated the festival of Diwali with fireworks, marigold garlands, and candles. Once a family of five, they’re now a tight-knit trio, devoted to one another in a way that only comes from forging through hardship together.
In 2009, Shivani’s father, Ram Swaroop, died suddenly. In the months before his death, his alcoholism created an increasingly volatile home life for his wife and children.
“He was well educated,” says Anita, “but drinking brought him down.”
After his death, her in-laws took everything from the family’s home, leaving the single mother with only the four walls of their house.
“I had nothing,” she remembers. “It was a very hard time.”
Two years later, tragedy struck again. Avinash, Shivani and Nitil’s brother, died of a brain tumor in 2011 at age 14. Anita was shattered.
After her husband died, “we were able to manage,” says Anita. But after Avinash’s death, Nitil became depressed, and Shivani cried all the time. “That’s when our bond increased,” Anita says. “We had to console each other.”
Since then, says Nitil, “We are living, we are trying to be resilient. My mom has worked so hard. If she can rise up in those extreme circumstances, we have no excuse.”
Neighbors gave food, but no relatives from either side of the family helped in their struggle. Because of the lack of support from their extended family, “I made sure both my kids know the importance of being there for each other,” says Anita. “You never leave your family.”
Anita grew up the youngest of six children in a family from Harda, a rural village in Madhya Pradesh state. Her parents were farmers, and their village lacked schools and other basic amenities.
They moved to Delhi in the 1970s so their children could receive an education, but their focus was fixed on Anita’s brothers: She was engaged at 13, married at 14, and dropped out of school at 15.
“If I had studied more, things would have been different,” Anita says.
Things are different for her daughter. Since she was sponsored through World Vision as a third grader, Shivani has taken advantage of every opportunity to learn and grow over the years: child journalism workshops, seminars on children’s rights, field trips to the science center and Lodi Gardens, community clean-up days, youth clubs, and educational support.
As her involvement deepened, her confidence grew. She blossomed from a reserved, shy adolescent to a determined, articulate young woman, says Amrita Singh, a World Vision staff member who first met Shivani seven years ago.
It was Amrita who recommended Shivani for the vocational training course that led to her internship at the travel agency. She knew Shivani has always been interested in travel.
With two months left at the internship, Shivani’s already planning what’s next. She’ll apply for airline ticketing jobs at other travel agencies — “small steps,” she says, to her ultimate goal of becoming a flight attendant.
“I want to live a busy life,” says Shivani, though she already does. After working at the agency during the day, she returns home at 8 p.m. to eat dinner before going to a study center for two hours.
She is in her second year of a bachelor of arts degree, which includes political science, economics, and Hindi. Nitil is also in college. He’s studying toward a three-year bachelor of commerce degree in hopes of eventually working for a multinational corporation.
Like his sister, Nitil’s working hours are spent miles away from Madanpur Khadar. He used to work at a Land Rover and Jaguar car dealership, but now he just started working at a designer clothing boutique. It’s the kind of shop where the price for a lehenga (skirt and blouse set) is equivalent to his month’s salary.
His first month he’ll earn 9,000 rupees (US$138), then 10,000 (US$153) per month after that. He gives his entire salary to his mother.
As a single parent working a low-paying job as a maid, Anita has accrued significant debt over the years — she estimates it’s 30,000 rupees (US$460). She doesn’t make much as a maid even in a wealthy neighborhood, so with help from Nitil’s salary and Shivani’s internship stipend of 3,000 rupees (US$46), she’s chipping away at the amount. It’s a continued source of stress.
“It would have been easier to get [Shivani and Nitil] out of school and work,” she says, like 47 million students across India who drop out of school by 10th grade. “But in the long term, it’s better for them to have education and a career.”
She’s seen in her own life how a lack of education has lasting consequences. For Anita, her family’s move to Delhi in the 1970s didn’t create a path much different than the one planned for her in Harda, her hometown. She wed in a child marriage, dropped out of school, and, as a widow, depends on her children.
It’s taken another generation for change to take root, wholly through Anita’s perseverance to make a better life for Shivani and Nitil. She’s done the hard work of setting them up for success, and they’re taking advantage of the opportunities World Vision brought to their doorstep in Delhi’s inner city.
Decorating their home the night of Diwali, Shivani carefully places small candles along the steps to the front door, the soft candlelight illuminating her face. The candles, traditionally used to celebrate the festival, signify light triumphing over dark — just as Shivani, Anita, and Nitil together have overcome the hardships of the past decade. Now, bound with new strength, they’re moving with hope toward the future.
Editor’s note: Since the initial reporting of this story we’re happy to say that Shivani has now found full-time employment at a local travel company.
A pair of dumbbells hits the floor as Tipu Azad finishes a set of chest presses. The disciplined 22-year-old works out most mornings at the gym, sweating as he moves from one machine to another in his circuit-training plan.
It’s a no-frills space — more like a boxing gym than L.A. Fitness — and it matches his no-frills neighborhood of Madanpur Khadar, a poor section of southeast Delhi.
Most families here live in poverty, but many have crossed an economic threshold where they, like Tipu, have some disposable income to pay for a membership, enabling a gym to stay in business.
After finishing his workout, Tipu struts through the web of concrete streets back to his home. With a haircut modeled after international soccer star David Beckham and a cell phone in his pocket that captures frequent selfies, he waves hello to neighbors and friends he passes.
He shares a narrow, four-story home with five brothers (including a pair of twins), one sister, and their parents, who run a sewing business out of the ground floor.
Their workshop is a hub of activity. Two sewing machines barely rest with his parents, Nasima Khatun, 38, and Mohammad Azad, 40, at the helm. Flashes of brightly colored fabric, thread, and trim whip around the room with efficiency.
The couple received sewing machines from World Vision as part of an economic empowerment program. “If we didn’t get the machines, how would we do our work?” asks Mohammad. “It’s made a big difference. Now we don’t have to leave our home to work.”
They’re the go-to spot in Madanpur Khadar for custom-made clothing. “The entire neighborhood are our customers,” Nasima says with a laugh.
Nasima and Mohammad migrated to Delhi from Bhojpur, Bihar, in 1995 — Tipu was 3 months old. They settled first in Nehru Place, then relocated to Madanpur Khadar when families at Nehru Place were forced to move in 2002.
In Bhojpur, Mohammad worked as a tailor and even started his own business. A family dispute fractured his relationship with his siblings and led to his decision to move to Delhi.
An unexpected byproduct of their move: access to better education, economic opportunities, and World Vision programs in Delhi, all of which have helped each family member flourish.
The siblings saw other kids in the neighborhood going to the World Vision center on their block. “They seemed empowered and were learning a lot, so I decided to learn more,” says Asif, 18. His brothers and sister followed, and before long the entire family was involved.
Children’s clubs helped them develop leadership skills and a passion for helping others. Self-defense training for Heena, the only daughter in the family, inspired confidence. Drama performances taught creative expression.
Even the library at the center created Tipu’s appetite for books. He became a regular visitor, checking out a variety of titles — novels, biographies, fables, and language instruction books.
Asif and Atif, the twins, work part time at a computer repair center in Nehru Place, close to where eldest brother Saddham works as a graphic designer. Both aspire to become computer engineers. Together they lead a youth club in the neighborhood, where they focus on eliminating harmful teasing.
“Teasing” — an umbrella term in India that includes all kinds of harassment — is a problem across the country, especially in urban areas like Delhi. Their older brother used to be part of the problem.
“Years ago, I had bad habits,” Tipu says, after falling in with the wrong crowd. “I was wandering the streets and teasing girls.”
One day, a girl confronted him, crying, after he said something rude to her on the street. He realized his words had power and could hurt others.
“I thought about why I was doing that,” he says. “I also have a sister. I realized through teasing that we need to take a step toward our future and take negative things and make them positive.”
Tipu learned how to get along with people who are different from him — whether by gender, religion, or state of origin — through World Vision’s Play for Peace program. It’s an especially important skill in urban areas densely populated with people from across the wide-ranging country.
He started volunteering for a non-profit organization called Magic Bus in 2011. Four years later, he’s one of 16 full-time staff in South Delhi’s Magic Bus office.
Every day, he leads two two-hour sessions — one in the morning and one in the afternoon — for local children. They meet in the neighborhood park, which is little more than a dirt field strewn with trash and rocks.
Today, 12 kids form a circle, and Tipu leads them in a song about good hygiene habits. Then they play a few games and work on football (soccer) skills. The sessions are a hodgepodge of activity, but through it all Tipu builds trust and reinforces that he’s available for the kids whenever they need him.
Around the time he started volunteering with Magic Bus, he switched his college studies from communications to social work, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 2016. He now plans to get a masters in social work.
He’s proud to be a leader in his community. “A train has both cars and an engine,” he explains. “A lot of people say they want to be leaders, but not many do.”
Exhausted from the two Magic Bus sessions, Tipu ends the day with his siblings. They crowd into their parents’ workshop, joking and talking over one another. Bolstered by their affection and care for each other, the tight-knit family has shone their warmth outward into Madanpur Khadar.
“We want two things for our kids,” says their father. “Character — that they be soft-spoken, behave in the proper way, and have good manners. And studying — that they will do something and stand on their own two feet.”
With reading glasses perched on his nose, Mohammad explains, “It was not possible to have the same opportunities in Bhojpur as we do here.”
Not only has Tipu fulfilled his father’s hopes, he’s helping other children accomplish the same things.
About This Project
Urbanization has changed the face of poverty over the last century, which means it’s changed the way World Vision works in cities.
In 2008, we launched the Urban Research Initiative to build on our decades of expertise in sustainable community development in rural areas — to see what works in an urban setting, what doesn’t, and how to replicate learnings in cities around the world.
For this project, we wanted to explore what compels people to uproot their lives in pursuit of a better future for their children and if their new life delivers on that promise.
We were also interested to see how World Vision’s work manifests in urban areas: How does our community development model flex to address specific challenges in specific contexts? We went to two cities in India, Agra and Delhi, to find out.
Some things are starkly different, like water — we can’t drill boreholes in dense city neighborhoods, but we can provide purifiers for the water the city pipes in — and some of it is strikingly similar. People everywhere are remarkably resourceful and tenacious in solving problems and overcoming challenges. Child sponsorship functions the same way in urban and rural environments, too. A child with the knowledge that someone believes in them, and the resulting empowerment, transforms communities one family at a time.
In Delhi, one of the largest cities in the world, it’s easy to feel anonymous, hopeless, and insignificant. The systematic problems are so complex that they seem immovable and unconquerable. But World Vision chips away at these challenges by creating change in the smallest denominator possible: a child.
Despite the challenges of urban poverty, this approach of individual transformation works — and is changing lives.
Special thanks to Liju Varkey Jacob, Jamila, Samir, Priyanka, and Parshuram in Agra; Tanuja, Amrita Singh, Gaurav, Pinki, Bobby, and Gautum in Delhi; Sam Theodore and Alfred Ling of World Vision India; and the families who allowed us into their lives.
Photos, video, and 360-degree images by Eugene Lee, World Vision U.S.
Additional reporting by Annila Harris, World Vision South Asia and Pacific
Design and development by Journey Group, Inc.