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A Rajasthan-based NGO is helping Dalit people, who often work as toilet cleaners, to escape a life of abuse and class prejudice

• From scavenger to seamstress: how an Indian waste gatherer found a better life – in pictures

In India, manual scavengers, who clean dry latrines, face severe social discrimination as they belong to the lowest stratum of India’s caste-based society – the Dalits, formerly known as “untouchables”. Though a law was passed in 1993 to prohibit manual scavenging, there are 794,390 dry latrines cleaned by manual scavengers, mostly women, in India (2011 census).

Uganta Umarwal is one of them. For the 38-year-old single mother of three from the state of Rajasthan, there seemed no possibility of casting off the social stigma faced by her community because of their work picking up human excrement from dry latrines. She comes from a family of Dalits.

Umarwal started work when she was 10 years old. “My mother used to tell me that I have to do this work all my life,” she recalls. “One day I refused to do the work, thinking my parents wouldn’t force me – but my mother beat me with a stick.”

She climbed a tree in the courtyard of her house to escape the beatings. “I sat in the tree the whole day, but how long could I stay there? I was hungry and thirsty, and felt helpless. I eventually agreed to do the work,” she says.

She hoped her life would improve once she got married. But things changed for the worse: her husband, an alcoholic, didn’t work, and routinely beat her. She continued to do the same work, but he took all her money. “I lived with him for 12 years in constant fear. Life had become hell for me. I thought of killing myself, but couldn’t leave my children behind. Then, one day, he wouldn’t let me back into the house. I was forced to sleep outside for three days,” she says.

Umarwal, who was pregnant at the time, sold her anklets to pay for bus tickets to move back, with her daughters, into her parents’ home in Tonk, about 150km from Jaipur, in Rajasthan state.

She again worked as a manual scavenger, earning 300 rupees (almost £4) a month. Her day began early; she worked in 15 houses. She collected excrement from the dry latrines in a basket and walked at least 3km to the woods to dump it. Her two very young daughters helped her.

Her family had health problems, especially diarrhoea and fever, but couldn’t afford a doctor. Over the time Umarwal suffered from acute stress and sleep disorder. “It was dirty work, and the smell of excreta used to drive me mad. I felt dizzy and miserable. Sometimes I woke up screaming at night, covered in sweat.”

As a Dalit, she always faced humiliation. She was barred from temples; she had to enter her employer’s courtyard through a different door. Once, when her daughter fell down a drain, no one came to help her.

“As we were considered ‘untouchable’, people from other castes usually didn’t touch us – but if we skipped work or made mistakes they beat us, and sometimes even pelted us with stones,” she says.

Life changed

In 2008, Bindeshwar Pathak, a sociologist and founder of the NGOSulabh Sanitation, which campaigns to alleviate the plight of manual scavengers, urged her to give up her job. He promised her a stipend of 3,000 rupees and an opportunity to learn new skills at Sulabh’s vocational centre in Tonk – called Nai Disha, meaning new life.

Almost 200 women, who previously worked as manual scavengers in the town, have been rehabilitated and trained as beauticians or in food processing, sewing or embroidery. They have also taken courses in personality development.

Pathak says: “The problem of ‘untouchables’ is as much economic as it is sociocultural. Traditions take time to change, and require the will and initiative of all sections of society. Skill development is crucial for someone who is illiterate and from the oppressed class. By giving them an alternative livelihood, they are liberated from an inhumane job. Their dignity is restored and they are gradually accepted by society.”

Umarwal enrolled herself along with her elder daughter. She learned to sew, and was also taught about personal health and hygiene.

Now earning more than 5,000 rupees a month sewing clothes, she says her life has been transformed. “I love my job, my life is good and I’m happy. Every morning we look forward to going to the centre. We are loved and respected here. My only regret is that I couldn’t educate my daughters.”

There is also a change in society’s attitude towards her. Many of her previous employers, who used to treat her as “untouchable”, are now regular customers.

Mahesh Kirar, her former employer, says: “Before, we felt if our kids interacted with them, they would learn bad language. If we associated with ‘untouchables’, society would alienate us. But since they have started going to the centre, they don’t do any dirty work. Now we freely go to them and get our clothes stitched, and also invite them to our social functions. No one questions us if we visit them.”

Source : http://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2014/oct/03/india-untouchables-dalits-bindeshwar-pathak-nai-disha