India’s scavenger women find new jobs - and dignity

New Delhi, March 6 :  Rani Bai, a Dalit woman in her late 20s in Madhya Pradesh, has thrown away the shoddy cane basket and hand shovel with which she would clean a dozen dry toilets everyday. Armed with scissors and a needle, she now churns out beautiful bags from waste leather - that’s her new job.

“From scavenging I would earn a pitiful Rs.30 a month, now I can earn up to Rs.1,000 - and the job is respectable,” said Rani, who hails from Dewas district.

On this International Women’s Day March 8, several other women across the country like Rani will celebrate the fact that they have left manual scavenging practices to take up new roles in society.
Many Dalit women have taken help from local NGOs and municipal authorities and successfully left the demeaning task of scavenging, traditionally entrusted to the lowest social strata in the Hindu caste system.
The practice of manual scavenging, which involves cleaning dry latrines and clearing carcasses with bare hands, is an offence under the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry (non-flush) Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993.
“According to government statistics, 98 percent of the estimated one million Dalit manual scavengers in India are women,” Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of the Sulabh Sanitation and Social Reform Movement, told IANS.
“Of the one million scavengers, around 900,000 have been rehabilitated over the past three odd decades - 100,000 still remain and all that’s needed is political will to put an end to this practice, but there is none.
“The situation was despicable. I knew some women who took their two-year-old children to clean up toilets - sharing their burden, now they are all in their teens, they have found dignity in life,” Pathak said.
Usha Chaumar, president, Sulabh Sanitation Mission Foundation, was also a scavenger till 2003.
Now an inspiration for many in her village in Alwar, Rajasthan, Chaumar is putting every effort into “freeing other women scavengers who are grappling with societal hierarchy and caste oppression”.
Recently she was surprised when a Brahmin priest - they are considered to be right on top of the caste hierarchy - invited her for a wedding to a temple in her village and for blessing the couple.
“I was thrilled,” Chaumar said, “Someone who considered me a social outcast a few years ago and refused me entry into the temple actually invited me and welcomed me as a guest of the temple!” she said.
Another successful tale is of Kiran, a Dalit from the Valmiki community in Bhavrsa village of Madhya Pradesh. Once married into the community, Kiran was forced to work as a scavenger, cleaning toilets manually.
The Garima Abhiyan, a campaign against scavenging and untouchability in Madhya Pradesh, has helped women like her to train and find other professions and live a life of dignity.
Kiran now makes bags for a government-run organisation. About 40 women from her village come together every day from 5-7 p.m. to make the bags. They earn as much as Rs.1,000 per month.
For her, the greatest achievement has been that her children are now going to school without being discriminated against.
“When I worked as a scavenger, my children had to face taunts and nasty remarks from teachers and other children of higher castes. After which they left school. Now all three of my children go to the local municipal school. Kajan is in Class 4, Payal in Class 7 and Pooja in Class 9,” she said beaming with pride.
As a leader of one of the self-help groups in her district, Kiran now plays an important role in her Dalit community. She is even the proud owner of a mobile phone.
The Delhi government had also set a deadline of March 2009 to rehabilitate the scavenging community. Its collaborative efforts through Project Sampoorn Samridhi with the NGO We The People has progressed a great deal.
The project gave refrigerated carts in October 2008 to 31 scavengers to begin their livelihoods as fruit and vegetable hawkers. These scavengers, mostly women, are full-fledged licensed vedors in the Shahdara area of east Delhi.
Indra, from Gokulpuri, Delhi, who is a beneficiary of the rehabilitation scheme, said: “I feel for the first time that we are not condemned. There is a possibility of freeing ourselves from the bondage of the job of scavenging. We now lead a respectful and fruitful life, make a dignified living for ourselves and our future generations.”
She added: “This opportunity to create self-employment through hawking in Delhi, especially fully licensed, has upgraded the level of our earning.”
(Shweta Srinivasan can be contacted at