Manual Scavenging Is A Caste And Gender-Based Oppression That Needs To Be Abolished

WaterAidEditor’s Note: This post is a part of #InDeepShit, by WaterAid India and Youth Ki Awaaz to understand the reality behind the inhumane practise of manual scavenging in India. You can speak up against this form of discrimination and share your views by publishing a story here.

Every morning we flush our shit down the toilet,, but sanitation still remains a problem for many in this nation. An inter ministerial task force has counted a total of 53,236 manual scavengers injust 121 out of 600 districts in the country, despite the employment of manual scavengers being prohibited since 1993. Uttar Pradesh has the most number of manual scavengers registered while Maharashtra follows up in second place.

Manual scavenging is socio-economic problem that plagues the structure of a liberal society. Imagine the plight of such a citizen who has to earn her/his labour by indulging in a job that is outlawed since 15 years and of such demeaning nature. Almost none of the recommended safety equipments are provided to these people who do this job daily to earn a bare minimum income. Their jobs include continuous exposure to gases like methane, leptospirosis, hepatitis, respiratory problems and other critical health hazards. Manual scavengers are subjected to social atrocities and almost all the scavengers are from the Dalit community.

While men are most likely to be found working on railway tracks where wages are higher, women clean open pits in houses. About 95% of the manual scavengers are women but a large number of them are unregistered. Often they do not have fixed wages and get paid in food items or grains. Clogged latrines built inside the houses are generally made to be cleaned by women as families often prefer allowing women inside their homes than men. Often these women leave their home and  visit each house scraping off human excreta with their bare hands, at times, collect it in cane baskets and carry it on their heads to finally unload it in a dumpster that is usually located near their own settlements. Most scavengers who belong to the Valmiki cast live in settlements that are close to the dumping ground. In many cases, when men in the house lose their lives in similar jobs, these women are left as the sole earners of the household and have to take up multiple jobs after picking up excreta too. Getting these jobs is hard because of the Brahminical nature of our society which has clogged our mindsets with caste divide. Often, even if a manual scavenger gives up scavenging, it is hard for him/her  to find another job as no one is usually interested in employing someone “dirty”.

The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993 declares employment of an individual as a manual scavenger a punishable offence. Later in 2013, the prohibition of employment as manual scavengers and their rehabilitation act ensured their skill development and a compulsory monetary compensation of Rs 10 Lakh to the families of those who died while on the job as manual scavengers. The burden of enactment of the law falls upon the state government but for satisfactory implementation, it is required that honest survey techniques are put into use and real numbers are obtained. However, the most recent survey conducted by the union government task force show four fold increase and this is when scavenging of septic tanks, sewers and railway tracks are not taken into account.

Further, the efforts made by the governments are proving to be counter-productive in curbing this inhumane practice.  The large number of toilets built under Swachh Bharat Mission have a small pit which lead to people employing manual scavengers for cleaning. Railways are yet to get rid of manual scavenging completely. Women in these jobs are subjected to caste and gender based discrimination. The compulsory monetary compensation has been provided to just 100 families out of a total of more than 600 deaths reported as per the official records. It is estimated that real number of deaths is much higher.

Checks on rehabilitation and skill development centres of manual scavengers is not sufficient to bring substantial change towards uprooting this evil. The public itself needs to be held responsible for its own shit. Disposing off used condoms, sanitary pads, toilet papers often lead to situation that demand scavenging of excreta. Directives issued from the top of the chain will not be effective unless and until district and sub district administration is held responsible to maintain development of proper sewage system in each new settlement that takes place in the area.

Toilets build under SBM should be built on the twin pit model, where one pit in use and the other composting the collected human waste for a safe period of one to one and half years, rather than just a structure for government advertisement. Alternative jobs for manual scavengers especially women should be innovated and provided. Technical innovation is being done that will also help in dealing with manual scavenging. But the most important thing that we must deal with is the deep rooted casteism in our minds that clogs our vision and forces the people of a specific caste to pick up a job that is so, for lack of a better word, inhumane. It is a failure for all of us as a society if we can’t manage to uplift the people, especially women who have spent ages cleaning our shit so that we get to keep our hands clean.

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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.

Read more about the campaign here.

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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