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Breaking Free: Women champions end manual scavenging

Story by UN India August 18th, 2014

Despite legislation that prohibits manual scavenging, it is estimated that a significant proportion of the country’s 2.6 million dry latrines are cleaned manually. Women comprise the vast majority of manual scavengers. Community advocates are playing an important role in ending the practice.

photo credit : Jan Sahas

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The civil society group Jan Sahas has been identifying and training former women manual scavengers to actively campaign against manual scavenging. These women often go door to door, talking to families about the need to end manual scavenging, sharing information on rehabilitation packages available under the law and importantly, inspiring women to dream of a better future for themselves and their families.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


Since 2013, the United Nations has been supporting these women champions in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh, to address the challenges faced by their community.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


Forty year old Tasleem Bi is a Dalit Muslim from Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh. As a young child, she worked as a manual scavenger protecting her parents’ jagir or the right to collect waste from a certain number of houses in the village. It was a “right” zealously guarded by her community since they had no other way to earn a living. When she got married, she spent INR 20,000 to buy the “right” to clean 50 homes in her village from her brother and her nephew.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


It was only in 2005 when she met civil society activists that she realized that the culture of discrimination in her village against her caste was tied up with their jobs and only means of survival.” Once I realized I was actually a slave I couldn‘t do the work any more”, she says. The following year she stood for elections from her ward and despite being offered a bribe of land or INR 2,00,000 in cash, fought the elections and won by a huge margin. She has managed to get all but four families in her village from the haila community government sponsored housing. Ironically, she is one of the four still waiting.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


In 2011 Baadam Bai says, she won her biggest battle yet. While her community had been allocated 32 acres of land to cultivate after they had quit manual scavenging, they faced many problems. “The upper caste villagers would release their cattle to trample our crop, trying to destroy our hard work so we would break and return to our traditional roles “, she says. Teaming up with fellow women champions and other volunteers, she lodged a complaint with the police and the intimidation stopped.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India


Her only regret? ” I wish the options available today were available earlier , I would never have made my son give up school to help me with manual scavenging,” she says. Her aim now is to champion the cause of other former manual scavengers and their families and make sure they know they have a brighter future ahead.

photo credit : Ishan Tankha / UNDP India