Fighting for the Dignity & Human Rights of Women Working as Manual Scavengers

In India, manual scavengers, who clean dry latrines, face severe social discrimination as they belong to the lowest stratum of India’s caste-based society –, formerly known as “untouchables”. Though a law was passed in 1993 to prohibit manual scavenging, there are 794,390 dry latrines cleaned by manual scavengers, mostly women, in India (2011 census).

Since 2003, Sulabh International under the leadership of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak has been campaigning to alleviate the plight of manual scavengers. His interventions have had a transformative impact in the lives of such women in two towns: Alwar and Tonk.

Sulabh Movement: the Beginning

In 1968, young Bindeshwar Pathak had joined the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebrations – a committee that was set up to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s 100 birthday.  Gandhi aspired for an India where the plight of India’s downtrodden – formerly known as untouchables – could be alleviated. Young Pathak was sent to a town called Bettiah in Bihar to live and understand the sufferings of a community that was almost treated as an outcast owing to their untouchable status. It is here that Pathak learnt about the gross discrimination that the community faced in their day to day lives. But there was one moving incident that left a lasting impression on Pathak following which, he vowed to work for the betterment of the community across India.

“I was going to have a cup of tea with some friends from the untouchable’s colony in Bettiah town, when I saw a boy wearing a red shirt being attacked by a bull. People rushed to save him, but somebody in the crowd shouted that the young boy belonged to the untouchable’s colony. Hearing this, everybody moved away from him and left him to die. We quickly rushed in to help and took him to the hospital, but the boy died. That day I vowed to dedicate for the emancipation of the untouchable community.”

How Sulabh’s Intervention Changed Lives

Usha Chamur, from working as manual scavenger to becoming the president of Sulabh International

Social Inclusion of Manual Scavengers

Alwar and Tonk, the two towns in Rajasthan, serve as successful models of how Dr Pathak’s affirmative measures drastically improved the lives of women who worked as manual scavengers. Sulabh’s concerted and focussed efforts relieved them from their sub-human occupation of cleaning dry latrines. Later with the help of skill development programmes aimed at income generation thousands of women were  rehabilitated into the mainstream the society.

Dr. Pathak envisioned that to be able to free women from their inhuman job of  being manual scavengers there has to be a strong women economic empowerment programme – realistically it wasn’t possible to get rid of the caste system or untouchability, but income in the hands of women through skill development programmes could enhance her status and change the power dynamics both in the society an within the household.

Under the leadership of Dr Pathak, Sulabh introduced a five-point programme

The first step was to relieve them of the work of cleaning human excreta by converting the dry pit toilets into Sulabh flush toilets. Since household got flush toilets, they did not raise an objection.

Sulabh Two Pit Toilet Design
Sulabh Two Pit Flush Toilet Design

Then a vocational training centre was set up. It was named “Nai Disha” meaning new direction. Sulabh strongly believes that education is the key to human development. The women were taught how to read and write. To encourage the women to come to the training centre, a stipend in cash was handed out for three months and later once they learnt to sign their names, they were paid in cheques. This encouraged them to open bank accounts and also promoted savings. They gradually had control over the money – this was seen as the first step of being financially independent.

The next step was to make them economically independent. The women scavengers themselves took the decision regarding the selection of courses. Sulabh trained them in different fields like food processing as well as market oriented trades like tailoring, embroidery, fashion designing, and beauty-care. The women who underwent the training at the centre have acquired self-confidence. In fact, it has boosted their morale and they are now engaged in self-sustaining professions.

All the women in Alwar and Tonk, who previously worked as manual scavengers in the town, have been rehabilitated and trained as beauticians or in food processing, sewing or embroidery. They have also taken courses in personality development.

Dr. Pathak says: The problem of ‘untouchables’ is as much economic as it is sociocultural. Traditions take time to change and require the will and initiative of all sections of society. Skill development is crucial for someone who is illiterate and from the oppressed class. By giving them an alternative livelihood, they are liberated from an inhumane job. Their dignity is restored and they are gradually accepted by society.”

Tackling Social Discrimination through Non-Violence

Dr Pathak was determined to break the concept of ‘twice born’. The idea was to drive the message that all humans are born equal. He helped the former untouchables to perform those rites and rituals, usually performed by Brahmins and those belonging to upper castes but could not be performed by the untouchable community. For example, they were not allowed to enter temples. Dr Pathak challenged the formulaic tradition and personably lead hundreds of untouchable women to Nathdwara temple.

“Affirmative actions like the ones that I initiated has deep symbolic meaning. It was for the upliftment of the entire community not just individuals. Things like skill development and education are important but not everyone can optimise such recourses because talents of individuals vary. But when a community is privileged the equation changes. Others want to become like you. You become the new Brahmins – this was the idea behind Sulabh’s intervention. In a society like India, the approach has to be two-fold. One was the availability of toilet technology and second was to introduce skill development and economic empowerment programmes. The manual scavengers were the biggest beneficiaries of our work.”

~ Dr. Bindeshwar Pathak

There was some resistance but instead of taking a confrontationist attitude, Dr Pathak took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the priests to allow the women to enter the temple. This was a historic moment.

Changing Social Attitudes

Learning new job skills gave the women a degree of financial independence. They were also motivated constantly by Dr Pathak who often visited them at their homes. His support and love strengthen their determination to move ahead in life.

They gave up their earlier profession of cleaning night soil and were now working as beauticians. There was a social acceptance too. The upper caste Brahmin families that barred them entering their homes now availed their services. They have been examples where the rehabilitated women were invited to marriages of upper-case families. This demonstrates a change in the mind set and attitude of the people in these towns which have inspired communities of other towns to bring about a change.

Clarion Call from Freedom and Equality

The untouchable scavengers also got the opportunity to attend the World Toilet Summit in 2007 in Vigyan Bhawan. Prince of Orange of Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, now the King of Netherlands, gave them an audience on that occasion. He offered them flowers, and assured them that they will be invited by the UN-ECOSOC to take part in the proceedings of the United Nations.

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations invited these liberated scavenger women in 2008 to attend the Proceedings of the House at the United Nations. They also walked the ramp with famous models from United States of America and India. They went to see the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of liberty, equality and freedom and they were so overwhelmed that from this great monument they gave a clarion call that they are no more ‘untouchables’ and have now achieved real freedom.


Know more about Manual Scavenging

India’s ‘untouchables’ offered opportunity of a better life

From Scavengers to Streamstress

From scavenger to seamstress: how an Indian waste gatherer found a better life

Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers

Breaking Free: Rehabilitating Manual Scavengers