‘Liberated’ women manual scavengers meet US ambassador

March 1st, 2010 - 12:14 pm ICT by IANS  

By Himanshu Vatsa
New Delhi, March 1 (IANS) It was a proud moment for the “liberated” women manual scavengers when they were received by US Ambassador Timothy J. Roemer and his wife Sally at their Roosevelt House residence here.

The group of 100 women have left behind their ignominious job of manual scavenging - cleaning human excreta with the hands, an inhuman practice banned in India more than 16 years ago - and have been trained in tailoring, weaving and embroidery as a means of livelihood.

The women, who belong to villages in Rajasthan’s Alwar and Tonk districts, interacted with Roemer and his wife Sally and shared their life stories. Roemer’s wife Sally was wearing a sari woven by one of the women, who are being taught vocational skills at Nai Disha, a rehabilitation centre run by NGO Sulabh International.

“I feel touched as they shared their stories full of hope, change and progress,” Sally said on the occasion.

The women shared their experiences with the Roemers and the many challenges they had to face in their journey towards self dependence - beginning from being labelled “untouchable”.

Laxmi, one of the guests of the US envoy, recited the ordeal of being forced to clean human excreta through her poems and of having to carry the “night soil” on her head and being neglected by society.

“We thought it would never end. We felt like dying every day while cleaning toilets and carrying the faeces to the dumping ground in our village,” said Dolly, another member of the group.

The group also included 36 women who had taken part in a cultural programme at the United Nations in 2008 when it celebrated the Year of Sanitation.

The US diplomat said the rehabilitation of manual scavengers vindicates abolition of the caste system and other social barriers in society, according to Sulabh International which facilitated the meeting.

“At the Nai Disha training centre the women learn how to earn their livelihood and live a dignified life. They also motivate other such women to reject the lives of indignation,” said Bindeshwar Pathak, founder of Sulabh International.

There are officially 676,000 manual scavengers in India, according to Berdaza Wilson, president of the Safai Karmachari Sanghatana.

“Officially there are 676,000 manual scavengers in India, though unofficial figures put the figure at 1.3 million. We are working on an Action 2010, according to which we aim at eradicating manual scavenging by December 31 this year,” he said at a conference earlier.

(Himanshu Vatsa can be contacted at himanshu.v@ians.in)

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