India is a land of wonder women – women born with the sound of their mothers whispering into their ears about the nobleness of sacrifice and compromise, of forgetting one’s own comfort and living for one’s husband, children, in-laws relatives, family and society. The Indian woman grows up thinking she exists for the very convenience of those around her. My Indian sisters who disagree with me are either painfully naïve or are part of the uppermost echelons of society that miraculously believe in equality of the sexes. For those on the lower rungs of the ladder, equality is a luxury they can’t afford.
At the lowest rung of this ladder made up of miserable women, are the ‘manual scavengers’, their very classification a testimony to the detestable prejudice of the caste system that they are victims of. Women forced to collect human excreta from dry latrines in order to earn a few rupees which will buy their children food.
Mahatma Gandhi, that revered man who has posthumously progressed to the greatness of a god, called them the ‘harijans’ – people of ‘hari’ or god. What he called them showed what he really thought of them – untouchables. ‘Achooth’ – a word that, perhaps, has its roots in the very upper caste Mahatma’s own prejudices. Yet, I am only speculating.
He, and many others after him, stressed on better brooms, gloves, and baskets for these people, but no one spoke of letting them move into another profession. Nobody spoke about doing away with this horror, and making people responsible for their own mess. That, anyway, is a trait that seems hard to find in most human beings nowadays.
For the wonder woman, as I prefer to call her, all this discussion is just a stale stench of political hot air strategically performed before the elections. She will always have toilets to clean and money to earn.
15 years after the government banned manual scavenging [Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act No. 46, 1993], these wonder women, found mostly in small towns and rural areas, have not seen one paise of the government grants that were supposedly set aside for them. Although Rs. 473.80 crore was spent in the name of rehabilitation between 1992 and 1998, only 13.9% of identified workers were trained and only 29.7% rehabilitated.
When interviewed they have appalling stories to relate – how they do not have water to wash their hands in summer, how the rains are even worse because the waste is wet and gets all over their clothes, how they can barely look at food let alone eat it, how they grow thin and waste away due to lack of food, how their children pick up all kinds of diseases and they cannot afford the medical help. Alcoholism is rampant, understandably, because only hard core booze could render them numb enough to do this task. Their children do not go to school. Their girl children tag along with their mothers and eventually take over when their mothers fall prey to rape, death, or disease.
In recent years, though, some of these people are realizing that they do not have to stay this way. They seek help from organizations like the Navsarjan Trust, Janodayam in Chennai, Sulabh International, Garima Abhiyan of Jan Sahas in Madhya Pradhesh, and the Safai Karamchari Andholan in Andhra Pradhesh. According to the last mentioned organization, there are over 13 lakh safai karamcharis (another word for people who clean human waste) cleaning toilets all over India. Of them, 95% are dalits and 80% women. The Ministry of Social Justice and empowerment, though, officially announced in 2003 that there are ‘only’ 676,009 safai karamcharis in India. The rest simply slipped through the wide gaps between truth and politics.
These wonder women, fight against such hardships and have a lingering hope in their hearts that some day their life would be different. Atleast, some day the future of their children will be secure. They wonder if it will ever happen. Hope lies heavily on the actions of the organizations that have taken up their cause, and us who read this post and feel at least a tinge of guilt or sense of responsibility.
This is a long and sad post, but the life of the wonder woman cannot accommodate frivolity or fun. Her life is too long and sad. Maybe she is asking you and me, “Can you help me”?
This post is my entry to the July Write Away Contest over at Scribbit. Have a look here: http://scribbit.blogspot.com/2008/07/julys-write-away-contest.html
Facts and Figures taken from: