Lalibai stands by the entrance to the village cremation grounds. Before she took action, villagers had forbidden members of her community to cremate their dead here. © 2014 Digvijay Singh
Can you imagine getting up every morning to clean human waste from dry toilets (those without running water or that are not attached to a septic system) day after day without pay? And, while the work is humiliating enough adverse health conditions arise from carrying baskets of excreta on one’s head from losing patches of hair, having constant nausea and headaches to getting skin diseases and having breathing difficulties.
This is the everyday existence for hundreds of thousands of women and men across India who are traditionally and culturally relegated to the lowest caste in India. It’s called “manual scavenging” or collecting human waste. When women in this Dalits (untouchables) caste are married, the first thing they are given from their mothers-in-law is a cane basket to clean human excrement. It’s a practice that has been handed down through generations. And despite laws in India that forbid this practice and provide protections to the Dalits (both men and women) who manually scavenge, it still goes on without any major government intervention.
In 2013, the Prohibition of Employment as Manual Scavengers and Their Rehabilitation Act, 2013 (the 2013 Act), was passed that prohibits manual scavenging and provides stronger protections for those who leave manual scavenging, but the evidence suggests the law is not working widely.
I had to work with my head veiled. During the rains, my clothes would become drenched with excrement. They would not dry. The house would smell. I started to get skin disease and even to lose my hair. —Badambai, Neemuch district, Madhya Pradesh, January 2014 (quote from the HRW report)
Human Rights Watch released a report this week, Cleaning Human Waste: “Manual Scavenging”, Caste, and Discrimination in India, that shares the stories about women in particular who collect human waste from the dry toilets of the upper castes and explores the role of government and civil society organizations in manual scavenging. The report also lays out ways in which Dalits can successfully leave collecting human waste as a livelihood.
As aforementioned, these women are not paid, but rather are given scraps of food that they in turn take back to their families. If they don’t work in these deplorable conditions, their families do no eat. That is what perpetuates the horrid cycle.
I clean 20 houses in Sandawli every day. They give me rotis. They don’t give more than two rotis, but they do give us something. My husband works in the fields, but work in the fields does not come every day. If I do this work, at least we will have something to eat. – Shanti, from Nagla Khushal, in Mainpuri district, Uttar Pradesh
When women step up to leave manual scavenging they are oftentimes threatened with losing their homes and are even threatened with violence, even though the Indian Supreme Court has recognized that manual scavenging violates international human rights laws. What is proclaimed on the federal level, however, rarely trickles down to the municipal level and manual scavenging still takes place across India every day. While the government on every level is failing in this regard, civil society organizations are succeeding and women and men are standing up for their rights given to them by law to leave manual scavenging.
Read Lalibai’s story of standing up and freeing women across India from collecting human waste through organizations like Jan Sahas (People’s Courage) and Rashtriya Garima Abhiyan – the National Dignity Campaign.