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Challenging inheritance of indignity

Published on: Wednesday, 18th January 2012


Photo: Manju Bai works with manual scavenging in the village Akyia Dev in Madhya Pradesh in India. She is part of the Garima Campaign, but not yet liberated.

A marriage at 16 ended her schooling. At 18 she was carrying human excreta from dry toilets. Detesting it each day, yet doing it like the women in her community had done for generations.

Kirun is one of the 250 women from a Dalit community, which not so long ago lived by clearing dry latrines of houses of dominant castes and carrying the excreta in cane baskets for dumping outside the village. In return, they received some food and Rs.10 a month from each home.

But a campaign called Garima, literally meaning dignity initiated five-years back with support from ActionAid, has changed their lives.

Marginalised by caste

“Two years into marriage my sister-in-law told me that cleaning dry toilets is my destiny,” recounts Kirun, who is one of the leaders of the Garima campaign. “It was awful, bringing the soiled, soggy empty basket back into the house after a day of work,” she adds with disgust.

“Women were forced to run unpaid errands, removing dead animals from village, clearing leftovers and tending to the aged and sick by cleaning their soiled sheets,” says Asif, coordinator of the Garima campaign.

“Our children felt they cannot change their fate, even if they study, and will have to live the way their parents do,” adds Kirun.

Winds of change

“We are coming forward to speak in one voice. We maybe illiterate, but each of us is given a chance to hold the mike and speak,” says Kirun.

“We go to other villages, ask people engaged in this work to quit it for their dignity,” adds 54-year-old widow Badambai.

Right to a future

An important victory for these women was getting scholarship to their children reinstated. It was stopped after they gave up manual scavenging as it officially supported only those involved in the practice.

This made paying for school difficult for these poor parents and added to the hurdles in their way of breaking free from the cycle of indignity.

“We visited the office of Scheduled Caste Education Department every year to fight for our rights. Now every child gets a scholarship of Rs.1500, up to the 5th standard,” Kirun adds.

“Earlier, our children were looked at with hatred and they were not willing to go to school. Now the things have changes for better, they can go anywhere and lead a free life,” says 35-year-old Leela.

Recently, women associated with Garima got job cards under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme that offers 100 days of employment.