Five decades after manual scavenging was banned, millions of Dalit women are in its casteist clutches.
Despite being banned nearly 50 years ago through the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, manual scavenging continues to infest India and disproportionately affect Dalit women even in 2022. Manual scavenging refers to the practice of unsafe and manual removal of human and animal excreta from dry latrines, railway tracks and sewers by hand with the help of brooms and small tin plates or baskets. It is a caste-based, hereditary form of occupation enforced upon the lowest caste. Data suggests that around 1.3 million Dalit individuals are involved in manual scavenging today, of which 95-98% are women; although, the practice is also forced upon Dalit children and men. The Socio-Economic and Caste Census 2011, too, indicates that there are 1,82,505 manual scavengers in rural areas alone, with Maharashtra having the highest numbers.
Despite numerous initiatives at eliminating manual scavenging, the practice continues due to several reasons including its deeply-entrenched casteist roots, the prevalence of dry latrines and a lack of a proper wastewater management system, amongst other things. The latest data from the Department of Social Justice and Empowerment confirms the presence of 26 lakh unsanitary latrines in India as of 2019. Due to widely-accepted notions of purity, the burden of maintaining these primarily falls upon Dalit women. As a result, these women face a double burden on the basis of their caste and gender identities.
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Issues to be Tackled
Given its dehumanising and unsafe nature, manual scavenging renders Dalit women vulnerable in countless ways.
Severe Health Consequences
Due to direct, constant exposure to excreta, many women run the risk of developing a range of infections, diseases and ailments. A few of these include tuberculosis, hepatitis, helicobacter and skin diseases, which may lead to the rotting of skin and limbs, permanent hair loss, damage to reproductive systems, nausea, loss of libido, palpitations, etc. This is worsened by their limited or no access to healthcare facilities.
Obstacles in Accessing Public Resources and Spaces
As a result of the stigma attached to the practice of manual scavenging and their caste identity, Dalit women are discriminated against on several levels, sometimes even systemically. This makes it difficult for them and their families to access public resources such as drinking water, healthcare, education, land-based resources and services like the criminal justice system, to name a few things. Not only that, but they are also unable to access public spaces such as spaces of worship, parks, etc.
Overall Discrimination and Exploitation
Female manual scavengers are also discriminated against in their personal and professional lives which further marginalises them. They are denied safe housing options and alternative employment opportunities which can help them break free. Owing to the informal nature of their work, they are also unable to avail protection against sexual harassment at the workplace, exploitation, provisions for maternity benefits and minimum wages, etc. Consequently, depending on their location, they may earn as little as a rupee a day, 10-20 rupees a month, or nothing at all in some cases. Those who manage to leave the occupation still continue to face hindrances in different forms.
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Improper Sanitation Facilities and Provisions
The overwhelming presence of dry latrines, unfitting bathrooms in trains, urban toilets without a proper wastewater management system, etc. across India feed into the need for manual scavengers. As a result, Dalit women (due to their low position in society) get assigned work deemed unfit and deplorable for the rest. While a sanitation issue, such improper provisions pave the way for casteism to persist.
Recommendations for the Government
The following is a list of primary recommendations that can alleviate the grievances of female manual scavengers and eliminate manual scavenging.
Focus on the root causes of manual scavenging and devise appropriate solutions instead of expending excessive energy and resources on short-term solutions.
Acknowledge the casteist, patriarchal roots of this practice and accept the true extent of it today.
Expand the ambit of manual scavenging in relevant laws and provisions and craft gender-specific clauses which cater to the unique needs of Dalit women.
Monitor the ongoing efforts to tackle the problem and maintain a thorough database to gauge the extent of successful implementation.
Invest in automating toilet facilities and improving the extant wastewater management system to remove the need for human engagement. Provide protective gear and technology to those who still have to engage with them.
Caste reproduces itself in myriad ways and manual scavenging is one of them. Due to this Dalit women face countless injustices which often take away their right to live with dignity. While there are many interrelated issues to be dealt with, the one of manual scavenging requires urgent attention and action. Beginning here is essential, for it can undo one of the greatest historical injustices inflicted on this strata.
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