An attempt to lift the veil off the female manual scavengers who are non-existent on paper
4 minutes read
Although, ideally, ethically and constitutionally, one should not have to – picture a manual scavenger… I bet most of the time the image that flashes is a man neck-deep in murky waters spilling out of a manhole. This inhumane practice which is practically non-existent on paper is also somehow warped in the collective consciousness, as we barely acknowledge the women involved.
Far-fetched claims of making advances to eradicate this practice is exposed by the National Commission for Scheduled Castes (NCSC). States own up to having a couple of thousands of dry latrines yet only a handful of manual scavengers. In addition, a variety of laws try (yet fail) to prohibit the continuation of this heinous tradition, making it difficult for the safai karamcharis to exist on paper. Almost like the invisible elves that mend the shoes in a story, they are only something we hear about or see a photograph of, due to their seclusion on the account of casteist prejudices.
Amidst the invisibility, the veil seems to be thicker for female manual scavengers. An industry constituted of 1.2 million workers, it is estimated that 95-98% are women.
In spite of this, there is barely any research done on the same. Most women are forced to crawl into pits to empty human waste in leaking cane baskets, to be carried on their heads, and to be disposed of. They are also said to clear sewage, discard placenta post-deliveries and exhume dead bodies. Handling such waste without any protection proves to be fatal to their health and also makes them a target to notions of impurity. Already belonging to the lowest tier of the social hierarchy, they are thought to be “untouchable” by Dalits themselves.
With the additional discrimination from the upper castes, they are vulnerable to sexual violence, lack of access to public services, segregation of their children which births intergenerational trauma. Passed on from mothers-in-law to young married women, they carry on the practice together. It’s almost taught to the newly-wed daughter-in-law like a familial practice. As per a survey conducted by Jan Sahas Social Development Society in 2014, out of the 480 women from Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, and Uttar Pradesh, 85% of female scavengers were married women, carrying on the family tradition. Some women take the entire burden on their shoulders when their husband is killed in a mishap during scavenging.
Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, and Madhya Pradesh are said to have the highest number of female manual scavengers. They are known to belong to different groups like the Valmiki caste (Punjab and Delhi), Haila and Halalkhor castes (Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh), and Mister and Dome castes (Bihar). As per Kumar and Preet “Halalkhor and Haila communities practice Islam, and hence, they do not get any respite from the Scheduled Caste and Scheduled Tribe (Prevention of Atrocities) Act, 1989 as it is confined to Hindu Dalits.”
While men work in sewers and railroads, where wages are relatively higher, these women are usually said to clean the human excreta from the dry pit latrines, where lower wages are offered. It has been reported that these women get paid in painfully meager amounts, if lucky during a festival then with a free meal. Instances of leeching off their labour with no monetary compensation have also been reported. Attempts at rehabilitation are discouraged by families and communities, and even those who do it at the expense of ostracization, face difficulties accessing loans, with barriers ranging from misallocation of funds to insufficient paperwork. Even when “liberated”, they hardly get other opportunities due to their perceived social status, which is heavily influenced by the work they do.
Manual scavengers who are forced to remain hidden, have their basic rights denied. Some make an attempt to break free. However, most of the provisions under schemes for the rehabilitation were not gender-sensitive and mostly directed towards men. What one can conclude is that women face double the discrimination in this arena.
Along with cane baskets that leak with waste corroding their bodies and identities, they also carry double the weight of this veil of invisibility. Woven into its fabrics are the ancient coarse cords of caste, and the soaked wools of poverty, that bend their backs and haunch their shoulders, And although we’re taught to see beyond the veil, despite articles like these, we still remain indifferent to their invisibility.
- EPW Engage: Manual Scavenging: Women Face Double Discrimination as Caste and Gender Inequalities Converge, 2020
- The Quint: Even Among Dalit Manual Scavengers, Women Get the Raw Deal, 2018
- UN Women, Asia and the Pacific: Women champion their liberation from Manual Scavenging
- Reuters: India’s female scavengers enslaved by caste, gender discrimination, 2016