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A Stinking Legacy Of Suffocation And Stigma

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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.

India, a country with a population of 1.4 billion has over 1.3 million people working as manual scavengers. We have reached the moon, and back and yet five manual scavengers die every day in our country. Manual scavenging continues to be a stinking legacy of suffocation and stigma. For some, it is the most nauseating thing to do while for some it is the only way to make a  living.

From drains and sewers to septic tanks and railway tracks, millions of manual scavengers are cleaning, carrying and disposing of human excreta. Google defines manual scavenging as an ‘inhumane occupation ’ and let me not question the web!

Manual scavenging is a caste-based occupation which involves an unbreakable hierarchy system where manual scavenging is actually considered as a ‘privilege’ that can only be honored by the Dalits! Yes, you heard that right. Not every Dalit is a sanitation worker but every sanitation worker is a Dalit in our country. While researching and meeting various manual scavengers in New Delhi, I remember meeting  Rakesh who constantly emphasized the statement ‘Hamari jaatike logo ka yahi kaam hota hai’  hai and ‘hamare bacche bhi yahi karenge. ’ These words somehow froze me and I was astonished seeing the kind of belief these scavengers have accepted where cleaning anybody’s shit seem like their fate and destiny to them? Who is actually responsible for that?

While Article 15 of the Indian constitution prohibits discrimination on the basis of religion, race, place of birth or caste and Article 17 abolishes untouchability and it’s practice in any form. Nevertheless, the Dalits remain to be the highest employees of this inhumane occupation. Haven’t the laws and talks about equality been just restricted to constitutions and newspapers? Just imagine when your car crosses a nearby drain, how the smell forces us to immediately shut our car windows and now magnify that smell into a 1000 times and that’s the working environment of a manual scavenger every day. Does a manual scavenger have a high tolerating superpower for smell or his body is made of iron that can survive any kind of filthy state?  Is every child born in the manual scavenging community born with the denial of his basic rights and the purpose of his life is to clean our shit when he grows up? Is this not modern day slavery?

Apart from the segregation of this community from the rest of the society, there are various divisions within the community broadly as the private scavengers and scavengers working with the government. The government claims to have assisted 91% of India’s manual scavengers without counting 93% of them because of their involvement with the private sector. The scavengers especially the ones involved in the private sector are denied with any form of safety and most of them end up losing their lives while undertaking this hazardous work.  Are the sacrifices of these soldiers lesser than those at the border? Well, who can be held responsible for this? While the manual scavenging Acts of 1993 and 2013 of the Indian constitutio­­n  have officially banned this practice yet Indian Railways continue to be the largest employer of manual scavengers.

Manual Scavengers are not just the men who clean the manholes and the potholes, 90% of the manual scavengers are women who clean dry latrines by hand and carry them on their head. Yes!  We have achieved independence a long time back and I am talking about the existence of this practice in 2018 as we read this article. Some of the women I am closely working within villages are not allowed to enter the same temple or mosque or use water from the same well and their kids are not allowed to sit in the same classrooms. Before meeting these women I could have never thought the existence of such practices even today. Listening to the story of Tasleem ( a closely worked manual scavenger) , I felt like a 10-year-old child who had definitely studied about untouchability in her history book but has never thought of its existence in the real world. My research on this community was an eye-opener to the world we live in, where at one place we are planning bullet trains while simultaneously manual scavengers like Tasleem and Rakesh exists for whom their respective lives are limited to cleaning our shit and at times ending up losing their lives.

The battle is huge and the time to act is definitely now. I did not want to keep my research as an add-on to my knowledge but wanted to make an impact or at least try to do ‘something’. The wanting to make a difference motivated me to establish Project ‘Rehmat’ with the aim to solve the major problem of this community – Safety to the existing manual scavengers and their rehabilitation. Working closely with  Mr. Bezwada Wilson, founder of Safai Karamchari Andolan helped me to understand the community better.

Again, the fight is ‘to save lives and bring equality ’, larger participation by you and me and more serious approach by the government shall help us to achieve the bigger picture. Hence it’s important to make at least this dialogue stronger, the conversations important and the awareness wider.

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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.

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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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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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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.

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