Women who have been cleaning human excreta for centuries are now waking up to the realization that manual scavenging is illegal and banned in the country. Thousands of them are rising in rebellion against the caste system that allowed them no other occupation but this one.
Here six women share stories of discrimination and the inhuman treatment they suffered for decades before they decided that they would rather die than continue living like this.
The discrimination against us was so rampant, that even our children suffered. They would come home and tell me how other children would neither eat, share water nor play with them. The local restaurants in the Chittorh district where I come from would not even give us tea. Local barbers would refuse to cut the hair of people from my community. Then we decided that enough is enough and stormed these local establishments. Now they dare not refuse us anything.
Women from the upper caste would not even let us fill water. We had to wait for hours till everyone else from the village filled water. We were not allowed to enter temples until everyone else finished their rituals. We would often just bow our heads standing outside. Once we got to know that manual scavenging is against the law, some women got a little courage and decided to fight the system. One day, all these women burnt the tokris in which they used to carry human waste, and that was the day we got the sense of real independence, which the country got in 1947.
For centuries we lived like slaves, cleaning human excreta. People would not even look at us. Food was thrown at us, we could not draw water from wells lest our ‘polluted’ bodies come into contact with the upper castes. But that is now in the past. Now I walk with my head held high. I enter shops, temples. I broke the temporary makeshift toilets of the upper castes and told them that I would die but never clean their waste again.
When people from my community began to refuse to clean waste, we were all discriminated against. Shops would not give us groceries, barbers would not cut our hair, even midwives refused to deliver our babies. Our funerals were conducted outside the village crematorium. So we would travel 14 km everyday just to get some other work. Then we slapped legal cases on these people. We videographed this discrimination. And we won. After that, the villagers were forced to recognize us as human beings.
We were paid so little that we could not even afford a cup of tea. When we decided to put an end to this, the upper caste villagers would taunt us saying, “Where will you shit cleaners go?” We were threatened and no one gave us any work. But we refused to budge. So then, they began offering us more money. But we had made up our minds that we would never go back to cleaning toilets, even if we were killed or died of starvation.
People from my village would walk far away from us as if we emitted a stench they could not bear. We were made to draw water from a well in which dead animals and birds were found. If anyone gave us any food, it would be thrown in our direction and we had to pick it up from the ground. Even my children would be ashamed and would tell me that I should bathe many times because I was cleaning other people’s shit. But now, I don’t do it anymore. I am a daily-wage worker now and feed my children with my earnings.