Poor women's mobilization and participatory development: An ethnography of volunteering practices in a Kolkata slum
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In recent decades, practitioners of global development initiatives have instituted various strategies to incorporate economically and socially marginalized populations in their own development. Voluntary participation is a popular strategy that creates spaces for inclusion by recruiting the 'subjects of development' as volunteers in small-scale community based projects. Rooted in the ideals of participatory development, voluntary participation functions to mobilize marginalized groups to create a culture of self-reliance in their communities. In this dissertation, I undertake a critical examination of this practice through an ethnography of a non-governmental organization (NGO) sponsored health improvement project in a slum in the eastern fringes of Kolkata. In particular, I look at the volunteering practices of a NGO that works to improve economically marginalized women's and children's health by recruiting poor women as volunteers and training them to disseminate messages and provide primary health care in their communities. Going beyond the debate about the effectiveness of participatory practices, this dissertation examines (1) the discourses of participation in which urban poor women are inserted, and (2) urban poor women's experiences of and responses to voluntary participation. Situated within the intersection of development studies, urban and community sociology, and gender studies, my dissertation demonstrates the role of development ideology and gender in shaping poor women's access to health, their own perceptions of participation, and how, in the process of volunteering, such ideologies are simultaneously reproduced and challenged in the territorial confines of the slum. My dissertation also underlies the import of urban ethnography to documenting poor women's role in urban improvement efforts in 'globalizing' cities such as Kolkata.