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New beginnings to lives disgraced

Aug 27, 2008

Once resigned to a life of drudgery and humiliation, women scavengers in western India are now coming out of this demeaning occupation. Sulabh International, a non-profit group working to improve sanitation in the country runs a vocational training centre that provides them with alternative livelihood options.

Alwar, Rajasthan: Till 2003, the manual scavengers of Alwar, mostly women treated as untouchables, went from house to house, carrying buckets of human excreta on their heads.

Born into a family engaged in the profession of scavenging for ages, Usha recalls, “With a veil covering our faces, we would walk miles with the tray full of excreta on our heads till we managed to find a place to dispose it off.” 

Usha

Married at a young age of 8 years she often missed a normal life like others as was never allowed to enter a temple and also faced trauma when people called her "Bhangan", “Jamadarni” or Harijan.

“Even rickshaw pullers who knew us would refuse to take us and people never served us water in a glass”, she recalls.

Usha Chaumar, Sushila Chauhan, Maya Sangelia, Laxmi Nanda and other such women scavangers now hope for a new life of dignity, as they undergo rehabilitation through special skill development and vocational training.

A new lease of life

Nai Disha (meaning new direction), a vocational training centre in Alwar district, Rajasthan, is an organisation with a difference. Its vision is to change the lives of those who – by virtue of birth alone – bear the burden of shame and hatred by others throughout their lifetime.

The centre has been successful in taking out women scavengers from the pits of the demeaning occupation. Training by Nai Disha (set up under the Sulabh Sanitation Movement) provided chance to these women to give up scavenging and to join the adult education programme.

Santosh Singh, Project Officer of International Centre for Women and Child, Alwar, told that in the absence of any alternative source of livelihood, these women are offered a monthly stipend of Rs. 2,000 by Nai Disha so that they do not revert back to their old profession.

The two year training is followed by one year period of rehabilitation so that they get sufficient time for their economic empowerment.

These women today have acquired training and skills into various segments, such as food processing, cutting and tailoring, candle making, applying mehndi, embroidery, beauty care and in functional literacy.

They not only sign their cheques but also market the products on a profit earning basis. Singh introduces many women scavengers at the centre who have now learnt to interact with the bank and operate their accounts in a Alwar based bank. 

Usha has opened up a workplace where they impart beauty tips and teach embroidery and stitching to other women of the area.

Embroidery

Having herself transformed to a normal human being who has self-respect and dignity, she now wants to help others. She said that there are numerous girls who approached her and wanted to know how their lives can be changed.

A poem by Laxmi, 24, best describes the pain and hope of these women: “Once drowned in the darkness of sorrow, now her life too will be full of fragrance”.

Dehumanised

No human degradation could be more cruel and inhuman than the one suffered by scavengers. In 1925, Mahatma Gandhi said that “sanitation was more important than independence.”

Employing manual scavengers to clear human excreta is punishable under the law, yet many institutions, private and public, continue to do so with impunity.

In 1993, Indian Parliament passed the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, which tendered even voluntary employment of manual scavengers for removing excreta an offence.

women scavenger.JPG

According to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment, there are over 600,000 manual scavengers and around 9.6 million dry latrines in the country. The Safai Karamcharies Andolan fears actual numbers could be three to four times more than the official figures.

More than 95 % of those employed as manual scavengers are dalits. By offering them better alternatives; the government aims to wipeout the profession by March 2009.

Official UN agencies report that if current trends continue, there will be 2.6 billion people including 980 million children – some 41 % of the global population – without basic sanitation in 2015.

“We will not reach our 2015 MDG targets on sanitation before 2026”, said Prince Willem Alexander of the Netherlands and Chairman of the United Nations Secretary General's Advisory Board on Water and Sanitation (UNSGAB) while addressing the gathering on the launch of International year of Sanitation-2008 on November 21, 2007.

He urged countries to mobilise communities, particularly women’s group to change sanitation and hygiene practice through campaigns.

Freedom at last

Senior programme officer, UNICEF-Rajasthan, Shikha Wadhwa has urged for a multi-pronged strategy to rehabilitate the Balmikis, a scavenger community in Rajsathan, by providing alternative employment and integrating them into mainstream livelihood options.

The most successful of the voluntary scavenger emancipation enterprise has been run by the Sulabh International. The centre was started in April 2003, at the initiative of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, Founder of Sulabh Sanitation Mission.

Impressed with the work done by Sulabh, the UN Department of Economics and Social Affairs invited these women scavengers of Alwar to New York on July 2, 2008 to showcase how determination can uplift the most suppressed women.

An example of liberation and courage before an assembly of NGOs from more than 150 countries, these women rubbed shoulders with UN diplomats and walked at the ramp with leading models during a fashion show to mark the International Year of Sanitation 2008.

Usha proudly says that the clothes of the models were embroidered by them under the guidance of renowned fashion designer Abdul Haldar, who was also the designer of Michael Jackson.

These women rubbed shoulders with UN diplomats and walked at the ramp with leading models during a fashion show to mark the International Year of Sanitation 2008.

Rajasthan Chief Minister Vasudhara Raje has said that it is both a matter of honour and pride for humanity that these women now sell eatables prepared by them to the very houses in the community where they earlier did the scavenging.

The chief minister has granted a project in March 2008 to Sulabh International for training 225 manual scavengers in the state’s Tonk district. Under this project, not only scavenger women but also their wards will get trained in various trades such as tailoring, embroidery, electrical, and plumbing.

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