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The Untold Story Of People Who Carry Human Feces On Their Heads

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By Mayank Jain:

Uttar Pradesh is known for making headlines for more wrong reasons than good, but there is one thing that’s totally disturbing about the state and it is the prevalence of open defecation and widespread use of dry toilets in the state. Open defecation is only a part of the bigger problem, which is blatant ignorance of issues like sanitation and the focus of authorities and governments alike on playing petty politics or building empires for themselves.

Human Scavenger picking up fecal waste from a dry toilet.
Human Scavenger picking up fecal waste from a dry toilet.
Carrying fecal waste on their head.
Carrying fecal waste on their head.
Throwing off the collected waste in any open place they can find.
Throwing off the collected waste in any open place they can find.
Dry toilets in a corner of a house. Notice the lack of any soap, water or toilet paper.
Dry toilets in a corner of a house. Notice the lack of any soap, water or toilet paper.

To bring the point home, one can look at the facts and clearly understand how big a pile of feces we have landed ourselves in. 90% of open defecation in South Asia happens in India and the ‘fast developing’ states like UP and Bihar lead the pack. India is home to 59% of the people in the world who practice open defecation. The thought of finding an animal’s fecal waste on the road is stifling enough for us (who live in cities and watch movies at multiplexes) to feel nauseated but people in our very own country have been living with human waste all around them. It actually does flow in the streets. Right in the heart of East Delhi, there are slums where open drains and dingy streets stink of fecal waste and people don’t have access to toilets and hence they just leave the feces wherever they find convenient.

The conditions in Delhi are fast improving, though. All thanks to the political and strategic ‘importance’ of the city and it can’t be put to sidelines. What about the rest of India, though? If I may ask, why do we need so many war tanks and nuclear bombs in our arsenal when one is enough to wipe out half of the continent, can’t this money be better spent on helping people secure at least a healthy life for themselves with clean drinking water and sanitation?

I have been to the interiors of Moradabad with UNICEF’s team and have seen the conditions myself, so this can’t be rubbished as yet another armchair activism post. There is a huge gap between the sensibilities of people which vary from village to village and unfortunately, there is a huge deviation in the government’s efforts as well. According to the government, it costs only Rs 10000 to create a toilet in a home and the government is providing Rs 9100 out of the cost as subsidies and the rest has to be borne by the beneficiary. This comes out to be Rs 900 but apparently, this is too much for the people who were found talking on their smartphones and driving bikes and cars to their homes. This might be a case in isolation and people are actually poor in other parts of the regions as well but this highlights the gap in communication and action. People are being gifted toilets from above as god-send but until they will be explained the importance and need to have a toilet in their home, they won’t come forward and ask for it.

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Some parts of UP do have a lot of demand from the people and government is having a hard time fulfilling those but the others still choose to ignore toilets as ‘unhygienic’ and ‘western’ while they don’t realize that the whole point is to stay clean and hygienic. The other innovation apart from open defecation they have taken to, is dry toilet. No matter what it sounds to you, dry toilet is probably the gravest thing I have encountered in my life. Those who feel shy or don’t want to go out choose this means where they leave their fecal waste in one corner of the house and in the morning, a human scavenger comes to clean it and carries the whole waste on their head to dump it anywhere away from their home. This is done in return for a sum of just 30 rupees for 6 months! This is an inhuman crime being carried out all over the villages and it is a massive source of diseases and health issues. People don’t realize how unhygienic it is to live with their own waste in the house and those who carry on their heads find themselves perpetually ill with diarrhea or poisoning and they still choose to do it for that extra money.

The story gets worse once you talk to them about their children and you discover this profession gives birth to huge discrimination and people don’t dare touch them or talk to them nicely because of what they do in the morning. Story of human scavengers brings to light the vicious cycle of poverty and misery but the web is intermingled with shades of caste-ism, religious sentiments, traditions and cultural hierarchies that have grown to this level now.

It is a crime as per Indian law and the women who do it ran away when we tried to talk to them thinking they will be caught or punished and I could only wonder where this country has reached so far. Even after 60 years of independence, the Indian in a tier 2 city is largely ignored and unaware of the opportunities or dangers that lie ahead for them and things as basic as fresh water supply and clean toilets are not being guaranteed.

UNICEF is doing a lot in this regard and all hope is not lost. They have tied up with many on ground organizations and their campaign Poo2Loo is making waves all across the country. This is a huge effort to at least bring these issues to limelight so that people start talking about them to debate and discuss. What we need now is not just monetary growth but a growth in the quality of human life which can only happen if each one of us contributes. A post shared here or a discussion with your friends or peer group somewhere might someday translate into a big change of someone’s life so all I can count on is our own will and sensibility, the common men in cities who understand that life should rise beyond the struggle of basic necessities.

Government will also come along once efforts start flowing in from all directions. It has to. A ruler maybe rich but he can be only as happy as the poorest person in the empire.

Youth Ki Awaaz has tied up with UNICEF India to give you the opportunity to speak against the menace of open defecation, and get your ideas, solutions and discussion points delivered directly to the President of India. Click here to join the discussion.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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