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The Slaves Of Caste, Gender, And A Humiliating Practice

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IJMEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #ViolenceNoMore, a campaign by International Justice Mission and Youth Ki Awaaz to fight against daily violence faced by marginalised communities. Speak out against systemic violence by publishing a story here.

From the pulpit of the magnificent Red Fort, Prime Minister Narendra Modi raised the issue of cleanliness and aimed to make India open-defecation free by 2019, the year coinciding with Mahatma Gandhi’s 150th birth anniversary.

A Swachh Bharat would, after all, be a fitting tribute to the father of the nation. Ingrained in the idea of Swachh Bharat was the dignity of women. Ending open defecation and constructing toilets meant that they would be provided with safe and private spaces. But missing from the conversation was the dignity of one important group of women – the manual scavengers.

While violence and sexual assault might be a problem faced by all women in India, there is no denying the fact that the most reprehensible crimes are reserved for Dalit women. When caste combines with patriarchy it forms a lethal combination pushing women into the most dehumanizing profession possible. The violation of the rights of a Dalit woman and the injustice she faces has a long, painful history. Statistically speaking, crimes against Dalits have risen by 746% in the last ten years. An atrocity against a Dalit is committed every 15 minutes and 6 Dalit women are raped every day.

Most cases are neither registered nor acted upon and the perpetrators are mostly let off the hook. A woman Dalit manual scavenger is exposed to these dangers way more than a Dalit woman working as a teacher or in a government office. Magsaysay award winner Bezwada Wilson states, “Within Dalit families, women are the ones who clean the human excreta from the dry pit latrines because this task offers the lowest wages, men are more likely to clean human excreta on the railway lines and sewers where the wages are higher.”

Report from Human Rights Watch shows that out of all those engaged in manual scavenging of dry latrines and removal of human excreta, 95 per cent are women. Significantly, while men are paid in cash, women are mostly paid in kind. Men are paid around 300 rupees for a day’s work and women, if paid, are paid between 10 to 50 rupees per month. Mention must be made of the ancient Jajmani system.

This is a system that translates into ownership rights to clean a specific number of toilets. The Jajmani system was hereditary and matriarchal where it was transferred from the mother-in-law to the daughter-in-law. These ownership rights meant that marriages were done on their basis because the number of latrines a woman cleaned was equal to the amount of food she would be bringing home. The India Exclusion Report 2016, stated, “These rights are equivalent to property rights and can be bought and sold, always in connection to the women of the family. In times of crisis, these Jajmani documents are also pawned to borrow money.”

This is precisely why women are at a double disadvantage – the construction of more and more toilets will have a negative impact on the lives of these sub-caste Dalit women unless there are steps taken for their proper rehabilitation. As an increasing number of toilets are being constructed through government support, the question arises how will the pits of these latrines be emptied? Because for now, it is the women who crawl into the pits of these latrines with their baskets, fill them with human excreta and carry it on their heads.

Not only does excreta leak on their bodies exposing them to numerous diseases it also makes them subject of ridicule and discrimination by the so-called upper castes, exposing them to sexual threats, pushing them into segregation, and denying them public services.

A report submitted to the United Nations by the Rashtriya Gramin Abhiyan gives details about the health hazards these women face – diarrhoea, vomiting, respiratory problems from inhaling methane and hydrogen sulphide and skin disorders, anaemia, trachoma and carbon monoxide poisoning and severe infections like Leptospirosis, Hepatitis, and Helicobacter. To fight the stench of the spilled excreta most of these women smoke chillum, which further damages their bodies affecting not just their own health but of their babies too.

So why do these women continue to work in these sub-human conditions? Without much help coming from the government, women are engulfed in a vicious circle of caste and patriarchal domination. The India Exclusion Report notes, “No poor Brahmin or member of any non-Dalit caste would ever even consider this job of scavenging, not even in a state of complete penury and starvation. This is where it is important to understand how basic one’s caste is to one’s occupation and livelihood.

If you speak up against caste oppression then you risk losing your livelihood and often even your life. The livelihood of scavenging, ironically is, in fact, the only security that the community has as there is no competition.” Speaking of rehabilitation brings me to the government policies aimed at these women manual scavengers. The government constituted National Safai Karamcharis Finance and Development Corporation (NSKFDC), gives Rs. 40,000 to manual scavengers, in monthly installments of maximum Rs. 7000. Just like other schemes started by the government with good intentions this scheme has failed its implementation test as payments are delayed and corruption has crept in.

The National Commission for Scheduled Castes has made clear that though women scavengers are entitled to a loan of Rs. 15,00,000, the Self Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers has received a negligible amount of money. The Central government paints a different picture and claims to have rehabilitated around 90 per cent of the more than 11,000 identified women manual scavengers.

Whatever the figures, the ground realities do not match. In this caste-based hereditary slavery, women continue to suffer, trapped in debt-bondage and at the mercy of evil money-lenders Let us hope that while the government payments reach the bank accounts of these women, states too come up with innovative solutions like Kerala where the finance minister Isaac Thomas announced his will to stop this evil practice and declared that a robot will be used to clean sewers and manholes.

Let us also hope that by 2019, Swachhta reaches everyone and is not just about mere quoting of numbers and that toilets constructed are used and states truly declared open defecation free. And that the Swachh Bharat of 2019 is an equal Bharat which sees not just the end of open defection but an end and rehabilitation of manual scavengers, not just on paper but in practice as it reaches the lowest castes of women, and dignity and safety not just a prerogative of the upper caste women but that of the lowest and the most marginalized women of India as well.

What policy reforms do you think would help eliminate instances of daily violence and improve access to justice in India? Send us your suggestions and we’ll take a manifesto to the Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment. Let’s spark the change together!

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

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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.

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A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
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