A Christian Aid-backed campaign to end manual scavenging in India has achieved its ultimate aim – an Indian government pledge to end the degrading practice once and for all.
The outcome follows years of intense campaigning by our partner Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) – and strikes at the heart of a deeply degrading and humiliating ‘profession’.
What is manual scavenging?
Manual scavenging is a hideous way to earn money. Thousands of women across India had to clear human waste from toilets using their bare hands and a brush or piece of cardboard.
The occupation was made illegal in 1993 but continued as a main source of income for an estimated 1.3 million women across India.
The government has increased its 2011-2012 budget to support manual scavengers in finding alternative livelihoods, from just over £600,000 to £13.3 million.
It has also worked with SKA to identify existing manual scavengers, destroy all existing dry latrines and to review the 1993 law to make it more effective.
Since SKA began, just over ten years ago, more than a million women have thrown down their brooms, and vowed never to be forced into manual scavenging again.
The campaign trained young people to lead in each state and inspire their local communities to stop the practice and campaigned to raise awareness about the issue.
Forced to work in unthinkable conditions, humiliated and discriminated against, many women currently employed as manual scavengers never thought it possible that they could leave and find other work.
But SKA supports women to access government resources aimed at providing rehabilitation and alternative employment.
Bharati Devi was encouraged to leave her job as a manual scavenger by an SKA activist. She now works as a domestic help and is proud she has left; ‘I am now able to earn more money, as well as command respect.’ ‘I am now able to earn more money, as well as command respect.’
The vast majority of manual scavengers are dalit women, the lowest of the caste hierarchy. The work they do has been called both a form of caste discrimination and a form of gender violence.
SKA is challenging the system that ensnares women in this degrading occupation.
In July 2012 one of India’s most popular TV shows named Satyame Vajayete, hosted by Bollywood superstar Aamir Khan, delved into the issue of continued discrimination against dalits and challenged the prevalence of their dehumanising treatment, urging the audience filled with Indian university students to ‘rethink’ the status quo.
The show featured an interview with partner SKA and is said to perhaps be the first time the issue received such public and nationwide attention and scrutiny, receiving an overwhelming response from the pubic in India and worldwide.
‘We are proud that SKA’s Bejwela Wilson made such a huge impact on society through this prestigious programme’ said India country manager Anand Kumar.
‘This kind of popular challenge to deeply-engrained cultural practices is now imperative, to ensure the government investment in eradicating practices such as manual scavenging is effective.’
Highlighting the plight of India's manual scavengers
Aamir Khan's column in The Hindu on Untouchability
A popular review of Aamir Khan's TV episode on caste based discrimination in The Hindu
Link to the show with English subtitles. SKA's Bejwela Wilson appears at 1hr 3mins.