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Breaking Free: Life After Manual Scavenging

Story by UN India August 18th, 2014

A legacy of India’s caste system, manual scavenging refers to the practice of manually cleaning , carrying, disposing or handling, human excreta from dry latrines or sewers, often with as little protection as offered by brooms, buckets and baskets. The majority of manual scavengers are women.

photo credit : Jan Sahas

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“I used to throw up all the time because I could not take the smell,” says Sevanti Bai, recalling the many decades she worked as a manual scavenger in Dewas district in Madhya Pradesh. Convinced by others in her community and the law which prohibits manual scavenging, she quit in 2007. Since then, she and her family have struggled, making ends meet, through odd jobs, working in the fields and cleaning grain.

photo credit : Jan Sahas

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But things are looking up now. Sevanti recently joined 150 other former women manual scavengers in a two-week training session at the Garima Aaajevika Silai Centre. The Centre provides training to these women on manufacturing and marketing of garments.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


Supported by the United Nations Development Programme, women learn how to use a sewing machine following which they work at a local production centre, stitching apparel for sale in local markets.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


The result: Dignity&Design’, an apparel label run entirely by former manual scavengers in Dewas, Madhya Pradesh. It’s a start in enabling women to earn a living with dignity.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


It’s an initiative that has found support from Bollywood superstar, Aamir Khan. “It’s wrong to expect any one to be a manual scavenger”, he said launching the label last month. Although prohibited by law, a significant proportion of India’s 2.6 million dry latrines are still cleaned manually.

photo credit : Jan Sahas


Since 2013, the United Nations Development Programme has partnered with civil society groups to support the rehabilitation of former manual scavengers for whom, securing even the most basic of rights such as the right to draw drinking water from the village well is often a struggle.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


UNDP’s support has focused on building livelihoods and leadership among former manual scavengers to champion change in their communities and beyond.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India