Occupational hazards suffered specifically by the women manual scavengers in India
4 minutes read
“One of India’s greatest shames is the failure to eliminate the practice of manual scavenging, the evilest and most degrading prevalent practice of untouchability in the nation.’ – Harsh Mander, author, activist.
Even after 73 long years of independence, India continues to struggle with the practice of manual scavenging which has deprived many people, primarily Dalits, of their basic human rights. However, even amidst the indifference, most people are not aware of the fact that, out of 1.2 million manual scavengers, 90 to 95 percent are women belonging to the “lower castes”.
Subjected to multiple layers of discrimination due to their identity, caste, gender and nature of the occupation, women manual scavengers are made to bear the double burden of working as a manual scavenger as well as looking after their families.
Often seen cleaning dry toilets, carrying excrement in cane baskets, cleaning railway tracks, clearing sewage, it gets more difficult for females in this profession, with many of them facing mental trauma and sexual harassment. What makes the matter more miserable is that these sanitation workers are very rarely given personal protective tools and equipment, resulting in a myriad occupational hazards.
Due to the lack of safety procedures, the life of a manual scavenger in India is at risk every single day. With an alarming increase in the death rate, a swooping 62%, it was reported that 6 people died per month in the last five years by having to work in conditions that have remained unchanged for decades. And since a gender-sensitive approach is lacking in the statistical analysis, one can never know how many unidentified women have lost their lives.
With an alarming increase in the death rate, a swooping 62%, it was reported that 6 people died per month in the last five years by having to work in conditions that have remained unchanged for decades.
Women are exposed to numerous health-related issues. A UN report from 2013 says, “the direct handling of human excreta involved in manual scavenging can have severe health consequences, including constant nausea and headaches, respiratory and skin diseases, anemia, diarrhea, vomiting, jaundice, trachoma, and carbon monoxide poisoning.”
Without any masks they inhale hazardous gases like hydrogen sulfide, methane, carbon monoxide resulting in respiratory illnesses, making it difficult to breathe and even resulting in asthma.
Without any suits or gloves their skin reacts to the poisonous conditions that surround them, with alarming reactions like boils, rashes, rotting and even permanent loss of hair.These toxins are even reported to become carcinogenic.
Such demanding work with little technological intervention and negligible monetary compensation also curses them with musculoskeletal disorders such as intervertebral disc herniation and osteoarthritic changes. Amidst the statistics, caste politics and the aeons-old stigma, we see the same problem that arises when it comes to women – we often forget that they are also made up of skin, lungs, and bones.
Instances of leptospirosis, hepatitis, loss of libido, palpitations, gastrointestinal issues, etc. are reported among scavengers. In fact, the Human Rights Watch has interviewed several such women who narrate their tales of woe. One said that she did not even know the decline in her health was due to her profession, while another insisted that her profession has been sucking the life out of her. One worker heartbreakingly revealed about a miscarriage she had suffered. Complaints about stomach aches, hair loss, tuberculosis, heavy load are echoed by all. The health of these women is on the decline – mental, sexual and physical.
Manual scavenging, despite many verdicts, is weighed against all sorts of constitutional parameters and miserably fails in securing health, dignity, education, equal wages, maternity relief and decent working conditions to thousands of women. According to the Employees’ Provident Funds and Miscellaneous Provisions Act of 1952 and the Workmen’s Compensation Act of 1923, since most of the women scavengers work in the unorganized sector, they are divested of emoluments, allowances, welfare schemes, minimum wages, gratuity, etc. They have no access to proper healthcare services, housing schemes, Anganwadi services, and other government welfare schemes. Female manual scavengers are even not eligible for the average daily income paid for the period of 45 days post-delivery as promised under Section 5 of the Maternity Benefit Act. In fact, they are made to carry heavy baskets filled with human excrement on their head, even during pregnancy.
An integral part of the sanitation sector in India, manual scavenging does not seem to go away despite the efforts of numerous organisations. Nevertheless, while trying to abolish it on the whole (which is what is required), we need to provide them with some sort of safety net regarding their health – especially the women, who dominate the sector.
Interestingly, the Prohibition and Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act, 2013, prohibits all types of practices that force people to clean human excreta manually. However, this act does not focus on the issue related to the increasing number of deaths of sanitation workers. Even though most of the deaths are caused due to a lack of safety measures, the act fails to highlight what can be qualified as ‘appropriate safety gear.’
The current government spends around 18,000 crore Rupees per year on the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan but granted only 47 crores for the rehabilitation of sanitation workers in 2014 and 2015. The administration, which claimed a lack of funds, in all its flowery rhetoric, spent Rs. 530 crores on endeavors of publicity for the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan for both TV as well as print media. A massive increase in the number of deaths of manual scavengers in the country has, unfortunately, become a sad reality. It is not surprising that the fight against this evil practice of manual scavenging is more often than not fought by NGOs, activists, and manual scavengers themselves. Government apathy forces the civil arena to take charge; but the lack of funds to sustain their efforts often proves to be an obstacle.
With no reports to show the 95% of the women working, it hardly comes as a surprise that their health is considered dispensable. But we need to remember that we are all skin, lungs and bone, even the women.
- EPW: Manual Scavenging: Women Face Double Discrimination as Caste and Gender Inequalities Converge, 2020
- The Hindu: Six people died every month in the last five years while cleaning sewers and septic tanks, 2020
- The News Minute: Number of deaths due to manual scavenging rose by 62% in 2019, 2020
- Human Rights Watch: Cleaning Human Waste, 2015