By Priyanka Samantha Pinto, Associate, Urban Sanitation
Shalini, a 34-year old transwoman, works as a caretaker of a community toilet in Warangal, Telangana. Born as a boy, she faced tremendous resistance and stigma when she chose to change her gender. Shunned by her family and her community, she had to resort to begging at traffic signals to earn the bare minimum.
During that time, she got introduced to a Self-Help Group (SHG) of vulnerable communities formed under DAY-NULM and SBM convergence program. Shalini saw this as an opportunity to get access to earning a dignified livelihood and became a member of the SHG.
The SHG was selected for the operation and maintenance of the community toilets. Today, she earns a sum of ₹16,000 as the caretaker of a community toilet. Her journey towards financial independence was a huge step towards finding her own identity and fighting against injustice and discrimination.
Shalini and several other transgender community members do not begin their day with begging; they work towards maintaining sustainable sanitation. This change would not have been possible without a collaborative effort to promote sanitation-based livelihood options for the marginalized communities.
The Deendayal Antyodya Yojana-National Urban Livelihood Mission (DAY NULM)-Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) convergence has provided occupations to several community members across various stages of the sanitation value chain such as collection and transportation of waste, operations and maintenance of sanitation facilities such as community/public toilets and faecal sludge treatment plants and waste processing units. Several models have also been developed to support state and local governments with engaging transgender communities across the value chain.
However, their journey to empowerment has seen its own set of roadblocks. Being at the bottom of the social and economic ladder, transgender women often face discrimination and are marginalized. Throughout their life, they have been subjected to transphobic harassment, physical violence and sexual abuse due to lack of agency, voice and participation in matters that concern their rights and dignity. Being ostracized for their identity, initially made it difficult to mobilize them into community platforms as they were suspicious of the programme’s intended outcomes.
Therefore, a concerted effort was crucial to earning their trust and developing long-term sustainable solutions to empower them and reverse these injustices. Vulnerable groups like transgender persons are identified and organized into common interest groups by local and state governments. They are selected for various sanitation occupations through MoUs that detail the skilling process, roles and responsibility and remuneration.
Focusing on empowerment for leadership and decision-making, transgender community platforms like SHGs and their federations have been strengthened through sanitation-based livelihoods. This includes skilling of these groups, support in accessing finances, capacity building on business management as well as placement in sanitation sector jobs.
Programmes like DAY-NULM are created on the principles of inclusivity, the guidelines envisaged are developed for all groups in society including transgender persons, persons with disability etc. and more transgender groups have been integrated into the programme as a result.
The National Faecal Sludge and Septage Management (NFSSM) Alliance is also championing the crusade against this social stigma and discrimination of transgender persons with several state and local governments in Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Tamil Nadu and Odisha through livelihood opportunities for a meaningful and dignified life.
In Cuttack, Odisha, The Cuttack Municipal Corporation (CMC) selected the ‘Bahucharamata Self Help Group’, a transgender SHG to operate and maintain the Cuttack Septage Treatment Plant earlier this year. The SHG went through several rounds of classroom learning, and on-site training on aspects of faecal sludge and septage management, operations, maintenance, business management, leadership, communication, etc. before the plant was officially handed over to them in June 2020.
“The partnership with CMC is a huge validation of our potential and identity. We have come a long way from begging at odd places to managing a treatment plan,” Sheetal Kinnar, a 33- year old transwoman and member of the SHG. Such interventions have not only aided in creating dignified livelihoods for the community but have also lead to their empowerment and given them the opportunity to raise the collective voice of the community.
In Trichy, under the Citywide Inclusive Sanitation Programme, an intervention aimed at mitigating sanitation problems and providing equitable and inclusive sanitation services at the city level and the Tamil Nadu Urban Sanitation Support Programme, many transgender SHGs have received training on behavioral change for safe sanitation and have now become community trainers.
As community trainers, members of transgender SHGs have played a pivotal role in building community awareness on varied subjects like menstrual hygiene management, regular desludging of septic tanks, etc. Additionally, through the trainings and capacity building, members of transgender SHGs have even developed mechanisms to address the sanitation-related challenges within their community.
In many cities, the transgender persons still don’t have access to separate public and community toilets and continue to face violence and discrimination due to lack of access. The transgender SHGs have played a pivotal role in bridging this gap and raising the collective voice of their community to ensure that their concerns are addressed.
These sanitation-linked livelihoods have certainly helped in raising the profile of this vulnerable community, especially during the on-going COVID-19 pandemic. The nationwide lockdown added additional barriers and difficulties to the existing challenges for the transgender community, especially for those who are dependent on social interaction for their daily earnings like weddings, birth ceremonies, begging and sex work.
While governments at various levels are focusing on creating frameworks and initiatives, improving working conditions and providing social protection and rights for sanitation workers are crucial elements in India’s journey towards an inclusive and sustainable sanitation ecosystem. In this long run, we have the duty of not only breaking stereotypes and changing our perception about transgender sanitation workers but also recognize their invaluable contribution to India’s sanitation makeover.