A Nation’s Lowest Women Work Under Severe Degradation
By Shuriah Niazi with Lys Anzia – WNN Features
- Manual Scavenging Girl, India – Matt Corks 2006 image -
“In some urban slums of many major cities of India, and more so in the case of semi-urban areas, dry toilets are a sad part of the common reality,” said Dr. Sam Paul, National Secretary of Public Affairs, All India Christian Council, a human rights organization based in Secunderabad, India, in a recent report for the All India Christian Council on March 28.
The United Nations Commission on Human Rights (UN-HRC), at a 2002 meeting of the Working Group on Contemporary Forms of Slavery, said, “Public latrines – some with as many as 400 seats – are cleaned on a daily basis by female workers using a broom and a tin plate. The excrement is piled into baskets which are carried on the head to a location which can be up to four kilometers away from the latrine. At all times, and especially during the rainy season, the contents of the basket will drip onto a scavenger’s hair, clothes and body.”
In spite of the modernization of many parts of India, the age old custom of using dry – non-flush – toilets have exposed many bio-hazards to women in India who work as manual scavengers. Manual scavengers are, “exposed to the most virulent forms of viral and bacterial infections which affect their skin, eyes, limbs, respiratory and gastrointestinal systems. TB (tuberculosis) is rife among the community,” continues the UN report.
This is only a fraction of the suffering women manual scavengers face today in India. Labor slavery, severe discrimination and lack of the most basic human rights are only some of the challenges.
A 2005, US Department of Health, report states that disease for women manual scavengers can be “passed directly from soiled hands to the mouth or indirectly by way of objects, surfaces, food or water soiled with faeces.”
Women working unprotected are in grave danger of contacting countless diseases through their daily and close contact with human waste. Some of these diseases, in addition to TB, include: campylobacter infection, cryptosporidiosis, giardiasis, hand, foot and mouth disease, hepatitis A, meningitis (viral), rotavirus infection, salmonella infection, shigella infection, thrush, viral gastroenteritis, worms and yersiniosis.
Facing the dangers of daily contact, “Ninety percent of all manual scavengers have not been provided proper equipment to protect them from faeces borne illness,” said a recent, Jan 2007, report on safety by India’s TISS – Tata Institute of Social Sciences. This includes safety equipment like gloves, masks, boots and/or brooms.
The use of hands by women manual scavengers, along with the certainty that they will have direct skin contact with human waste, is a very dangerous combination that is contributing to serious health conditions. Chronic skin diseases and lung diseases are very common among women manual scavengers.
To add to the danger, “Removal of bodies and dead animals is the third most common practice of manual scavenging, preceeded by sewerage sweeping, and the carrying of night-soil by basket/bucket or on the head,” continued the 2007 TISS report.
In spite of its being “illegal” the practice and use of manual scavengers continues in many low-income urban and rural parts of India today.
But the law is clear.
The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrine Act of 1993 states that, “No person shall engage in or employ for or permit to be engaged in or employed by any other person for manually carrying human excreta; or to construct or maintain a dry latrine.”
Legal loopholes and non-enforcement of the law on manual scavenging continues in many parts of India, even as organizations protecting the rights of manual scavengers present detailed reports. At present the ST/SC All India Commission, representing the lowest castes and tribes in India, has much more to do to strengthen legislation on India’s illegal industry.
On the first week of July this year, the United Nations will be hosting two dozen women manual scavengers to tell their life stories to the UN General Assembly. One of them is Usha Chomar, from the town of Alwar in Rajasthan district of Western India.
Remembering her childhood in India at the age of seven, Chomar recounts, “When I was a little child I would often insist on taking a broom from my mother so I could do the scavenging. The disposal of human excreta was the only thought that dominated my mind.”
“The worst part of this primitive toilet system is the method of clearing these human feces. Men and women, often right from their teens, invariably the Dalits of the Dalit do this ignoble job,” continues Dr. Paul in his March 2008 report. “They literally sweep the feces with their hands using two small metal sheets collecting them into a bucket or bin to be eventually dumped into another larger container (sometimes sealed but often kept open) the contents of which is periodically disposed of far away.”
“I remember the first time I had to carry a basketful on my head. I slipped and fell into the gutter. No one would come to pick me up because the basket was so dirty and I was covered with filth,” said manual scavenger Safai Karmachari Andolan, Sept 2006, for The Hindu news magazine – FRONTLINE. “I sat there, howling, until another woman scavenger arrived,” continued Safai. “She hosed me down and took me home. But that day, I felt like the most unfortunate child in the whole world.”
Making up 98 percent of the majority of manual scavenging workers, these women, also known as “Valmikis,” come from the very lowest castes in India.
As India juggles its many traditions, with an incoming tide of new technological advancement from the modern world, legal solutions in the crisis for women manual scavengers are being lost in India’s longstanding “bureaucratic” shuffle.
The 2007 dateline, set by the Ministry of Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation to end the practice of manual scavenging in India, has now been reached without success. “2010 might be a more realistic deadline,” admitted Kumari Selja, rural agriculturalist and Housing and Urban Poverty Alleviation Minister.
Placed on the bottom of the list in India’s legislation, women manual scavengers are trapped by Indian society and caste discrimination, as they endlessly bound in cycles of poverty, inequality and lost opportunity.
According to the 2006 FRONTLINE report by The Hindu Times, “There are approx 50,000 – 60,000 scavengers (both men and women) in Gujarat alone” in the same city that hailed the birth of India’s Mahatma Gandhi.
“Mahatma Gandhi raised the issue of the horrible working and social conditions of Bhangis (manual scavengers) more than 100 years ago, in 1901, at the Congress meeting in Bengal. Yet it took about 90 years for the country to enact a uniform law abolishing manual scavenging,” says Dr. Sam Paul.
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