NEW DELHI (WOMENSENEWS)–Choti Bai hates everything that is yellow. It reminds her of human excreta she cleaned in home toilets with her bare hands for over two decades while working as a manual scavenger.
The life of this 43-year-old resident of Chittorgarh district in India’s western state of Rajasthan improved drastically six years ago, when she gave up this work. But bad memories persist.
"I cannot forget the 22 years I spent cleaning dry toilets," Bai said in a recent interview held in Delhi, where she had come to attend a meeting. "Although I stopped the work in 2008, whenever I see any food or clothes that are yellow in color, I feel I am handling human excrement once again."
In India, manual scavengers, mostly women, are involved in cleaning dry toilets without any protective gloves or equipment and carry human excreta in containers or baskets on their head for disposal. Men from this community clean septic tanks and sewers.
It seemed to Bai, at the age of 15, shortly after she was married, that there was no other life. As a child she had seen her mother and two older sisters do the same work. Although she and another two younger sisters were allowed to go to school, Bai knew it was only a matter of time before they were drafted into the family profession of manual scavenging.
"It did not come as any surprise when my mother-in-law told me to accompany my sister-in-law for manual scavenging soon after my marriage. I knew this was my destiny. I believed that this was what I was born to do, being a Valmiki Dalit," she said, referring to her caste community traditionally engaged in this occupation.
Several laws outlaw manual scavenging in India, the earliest one was passed in 1993. Last year, a more comprehensive ban, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation, was passed because the government in power felt the earlier act did not prove very effective in ending the dehumanizing practice.
Laws Lag Behind
But laws lag behind reality. There are 790,000 families that still work as manual scavengers, according to the 2011 census. Activists working for this community give higher estimates, closer to 1.2 million. Certain groups of Dalits, especially the women, make a living out of manual scavenging and have been doing so for generations.
Those who get paid can earn as little as 60 cents a day. However, most female manual scavengers receive no wages. Bai said she used to get leftover flatbread, food and a small sack of wheat from her employers. Sometimes, she would get money during festivals. Other household expenses were met by her husband who cleaned septic tanks and also worked as a daily wage laborer.
In 2008, many years into earning her living this way, Bai discovered that manual scavenging was illegal. This was when she met activists with the Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan (National Campaign for Dignity and Elimination of Manual Scavenging), a coalition of 30 community-based organizations from 13 Indian states, working to better the lives of marginalized communities.
When the Rajasthan state coordinator of the campaign, Kuldeep Ghanwari, along with other campaign activists visited her village and explained they were not required to do this undignified work, she and other female manual scavengers were skeptical. Bai recalled. "I didn’t believe them. This was being done by all the families of our community. Also, I didn’t have any skills to do anything else. So I didn’t know what I could do if I gave it up."
But Ashif Shaikh, national convenor of the campaign, said the activists didn’t give up. They continued to speak to the women about their rights. "More than 95 percent of the manual scavengers are women," said Shaikh in a phone interview. "They are victims of caste-based discrimination. So there was a greater need to raise awareness among them."
It took eight months for Bai to decide she could give up manual scavenging. Despite opposition from her husband and mother-in-law, Bai held her ground.
She turned to work as a daily wage laborer working in the fields and took to sewing clothes.
In 2010, when campaign activists saw her determination, they asked her to work with them. In 2012 she joined the campaign as a motivator, earning a monthly salary of $75, far more than she ever earned as a manual scavenger.
Of great value to her as well is the dignity her new life has brought her and the respect she gets, especially from those who once considered her untouchable.
Since then, she has helped persuade 112 women working as manual scavengers in her district to give up this work. While some of these women have been helped to start a small poultry business, others have been helped to get job cards under the government’s national rural employment guarantee scheme.
Bai said there are no more female manual scavengers in her village anymore.
She has worked on other forms of self-empowerment too.
In 2012, for the first time, Bai persuaded some other women from her community to join her in participating in a prayer being conducted by a local temple in her village. It was a big achievement as her community had traditionally been barred from taking part in any temple activities.
Last year, Bai broke another boundary by taking five women from a nearby village, who had also given up manual scavenging, to drink tea at local tea shop, which had in the past refused to serve members of her community.
Female scavengers who have left the work are the best equipped to lead the campaign and inspire others, said Shaikh, the national campaign leader. "Only after women liberated themselves, did they understand what is was working as a manual scavenger. We have been able to change mindsets of this community and those who have given up their profession have done so voluntarily," he said. "We have 100 such former women manual scavengers as motivators and have been able to liberate 16,000 women with their help."
Together, they are now drawing attention to some fundamental ambiguities in the 2013 law. According to Shaikh, while the present law provides for rehabilitation measures, it is silent on how manual scavengers like Bai, who left the profession before 2013, will be rehabilitated. Unless this is addressed, some of them may return to this profession or some other form of undignified work. So, there is an urgent need to make the necessary policy changes, he said.
Swapna Majumdar is an independent journalist based in New Delhi and writes on development and gender.
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