Championing the cause of dignity and human rights of women working as manual scavengers

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 – formerly known as “untouchables”. Though a law was passed in 1993 to prohibit manual scavenging, there are 794390 dry latrines cleaned by manual scavengers, mostly women, in India (2011 census).

Since its inception in 1970, Sulabh International, under the leadership of Dr Bindeshwar Pathak, launched a nation-wide movement to alleviate the plight of manual scavengers. His interventions have liberated over 200000 women from manual cleaning of toilets. Whilst the success of a specific five-point intervention programme designed to rehabilitate and economically empower them can be prominently seen in two towns of Rajasthan: Alwar and Tonk.

Sulabh Movement: the beginning

In 1968, young Bindeshwar Pathak had joined the Bihar Gandhi Centenary Celebrations – a committee that was set up to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi’s 100 birthday. Gandhi aspired for an India where the plight of India’s downtrodden – formerly known as “untouchables” – could be alleviated. Young Pathak was sent to a town called Bettiah in Bihar to live and understand the sufferings of a community that was almost treated as an outcast owing to its untouchable status. It is here that Pathak learnt about the gross discrimination that the community faced in their day to day lives. But there was one moving incident that left a lasting impression on Pathak following which, he vowed to work for the betterment of the community across India.

I was joining my friends for a cup of tea in Bettiah town, when I saw a boy wearing a red shirt being attacked by a bull. People rushed to save him, but somebody in the crowd shouted that the young boy was from the colony where the ‘untouchables’ lived. Hearing this, everybody moved away and left him to die.
We quickly rushed in to help and took him to a hospital, but the boy died. That day I vowed to dedicate my life for the emancipation of people labelled as an ‘untouchable’.

Manual Scavenging

Social inclusion of manual scavengers

Alwar and Tonk, the two towns in Rajasthan, serve as successful models of how Dr Pathak’s affirmative measures drastically improved the lives of women who worked as manual scavengers. Sulabh’s concerted efforts relieved them from their sub-human occupation of manual cleaning of dry latrines. Later, with the help of skill development programmes aimed at income generation thousands of women were rehabilitated into the mainstream society.

Dr Pathak envisioned that to be able to free women from their inhuman job of being manual scavengers there has to be a strong women economic empowerment programme. Realistically, it wasn’t possible to get rid of the caste system that sustained untouchability, but income in the hands of women through skill development programmes could enhance her status and change the power dynamics both in society and within the household.

Sulabh’s five-point programme

The first step was to relieve them of the work of cleaning human excreta by converting the dry pit toilets into Sulabh twin-pit pour-flush toilets.

Then a vocational training centre was set up. It was named Nai Disha meaning new direction. Sulabh strongly believes that education is the key to human development. The women were taught how to read and write. To encourage the women to come to the training centre, a stipend in cash was handed out for three months and later once they learnt to sign their names, they were paid in cheques. This encouraged them to open bank accounts and also encouraged savings. They gradually had control over the money – this first step of making them financially independent.

Two Pit Toilet

To empower them economically, Sulabh further trained them in different areas. The women who underwent the training at the centre gradually acquired self-confidence enabling them to take up self-sustaining professions.

All the women in Alwar and Tonk, 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.

Dr Pathak says: The problem of ‘untouchables’ is as much economic as it is socio cultural. 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.

How Sulabh’s intervention changed lives

Tackling social discrimination through non-violence

Dr Pathak was determined to break the concept of “twice born”. The idea was to drive the message that all humans are born equal. He helped the former untouchables to perform those rites and rituals in temples that were forbidden for the community. For example, they were not allowed to enter temples. 1988, Dr Pathak challenged the formulaic tradition and personally lead hundreds of “untouchable” women to Nathdwara temple.

Affirmative actions like the ones that I initiated has deep symbolic meaning. It was for the upliftment of the entire community not just individuals. Things like skill development and education are important but not everyone can optimise such recourses because talents of individuals vary. But when a community is privileged the equation changes. Others want to become like you. You become the new Brahmins – this was the idea behind Sulabh’s intervention. In a society like India, the approach had to be two-fold. One was to innovate a toilet technology and second was to introduce skill development and economic empowerment programmes. The manual scavengers were the biggest beneficiaries of our work.

~ Dr Bindeshwar Pathak

There was some resistance but instead of taking a confrontationist attitude, Dr Pathak took the path of persuasion and successfully convinced the priests to allow the women to enter the temple. This was a historic moment which was hailed by the then prime minister of India, Rajiv Gandhi.

Changing social attitudes
Learning new job skills gave the women a degree of financial independence. They were also motivated constantly by Dr Pathak, who often visited them at their homes. His support and love strengthen their determination to move ahead in life.

There was a social acceptance to their newly acquired. The upper caste Brahmin families that barred them entering their homes, now availed their services as beauticians. There have been examples where the rehabilitated women were invited to marriages of upper-case families. This demonstrated a change in the attitude of people in these two towns, which inspired communities on other town to accept and bring about a change.

Clarion call from freedom and equality

The former manual scavengers also got the opportunity to attend the World Toilet Summit in 2007 in Vigyan Bhawan. Prince of Orange of Netherlands, Willem-Alexander, now the King of the Netherlands, gave them an audience on that occasion. Further he facilitated their visit to be a part of the United Nations’ Economic and Social Council (UN- ECOSOC) proceedings at the United Nations, New York.

The Economic and Social Council of the United Nations invited these liberated scavenger women in 2008 to attend the Proceedings of the House at the United Nations. They also walked the ramp with famous models from the United States of America and India. They went to see the Statue of Liberty, a symbol of liberty, equality and freedom and they were so overwhelmed that from this great monument they gave a clarion call that they are no more ‘untouchables’ and have now achieved real freedom.


Manual Scavengers