Man can never be women’s equal in the spirit of selfless service with which nature has endowed her- Gandhi
As long as the world does not have equal social and power relationship between men and women, does not have sufficient gender justice and gender equality, the issue of women’s empowerment will continue to agitate people like us. The point, however, is how to bring about the change on the ground, how to empower women in our society, especially how to empower the women who live on the margins of society and face all sorts of discriminations
Of course, there are several ways to empower women, and Sulabh movement has made significant contribution towards women’s security through nationwide sanitation campaign—especially large-scale construction of household and public toilets, the importance of which can be grasped from the fact that the women suffer the most from the lack of access to toilet—and the welfare work for the widows of Vrindavan and Varanasi. Let’s see what Sulabh organisation has done for the women’s empowerment through running a sustained campaign for providing education and employment to the dalit women of the towns of Alwar and Tonkin the state of Rajasthan.
Till Sulabh intervention, these women cleaned and disposed human excreta with their bare hands from houses lacking flushing toilets—a practice euphemistically called ‘scavenging’, which is illegal and punishable under the Indian law, yet continues in many rural and semi-urban areas—to eke out their living. They were among the most oppressed and desolate segments of Indian society, as they suffered from severe disadvantages of gender, caste and class. Besides lacking material means of a decent living—hygienic shelter, basic healthcare, education, and other necessary resources of improving one’s life—these women, despite the Constitutional assurance of equality, also suffered from extreme social exclusion known as untouchability. Obviously, it was a daunting task to devise and develop appropriate modules for their education, apprenticeships and skill-building that was essential for ensuring their alternative employment without which they could not be liberated from the dehumanizing work of manual scavenging. This was the challenge Sulabh took and succeeded through its multi-pronged endeavors in educating, training and providing alternative employment to them, thus setting an example and a hope for universal education and employability of women, especially those who are at the bottom of a terribly discriminatory system.
Sulabh established a centre called NaiDisha (New Direction) in Alwar in April 2003 with the aim of eradicating manual scavenging and providing alternative employment to the scavenging women. Against severe odds and reservation of the local people, this centre was started with the active support of socially conscious women belonging to the scavenging dalit community in the vicinity. NaiDisha first provided the suffering women basic education before training them in market-friendly trades. We also helped them in developing their self-esteem and their integration in the social mainstream.
Earlier, these women were engaged in manual scavenging because they were born in a community that was traditionally burdened with this inhuman task. NaiDisha encouraged these women to learn vocational skills that would help them leave their hereditary occupation of cleaning excreta. Alongside giving them functional literacy and numeracy, we closely interacted with them, got their feedback into account and created a training module to develop their skill in food processing, cutting and tailoring, carpet making, embroidery, beauty-care, bag making, etc. NaiDisha also paid attention to the trainees’ health and hygiene, as they lived in filthy surroundings and manually cleaned 4 and carried excreta. Health being the key to a person’s well-being, the centre held regular medical check-ups of the trainees.
Sulabh’s initiative for education and liberation of the suffering women of Alwar cannot be grasped without understanding the larger context and objective of our movement. Way back in 1970, inspired by Gandhi’s dream of the untouchables’ emancipation and sanitation for all Indians, Dr Pathak laid the foundation of Sulabh. The aim was to build an effective movement for liberation of the manual scavengers, as well as eradicating open defecation and ensuring clean environment. In subsequent years, Sulabh strove and succeeded in finding a solution to the menace of open defecation through inventing a safe and affordable toilet technology. Sulabh put this technology in practical use, as they constructed a large number of household and public toilets all over India. But our bigger achievement lies in rousing the social conscience and changing the caste-ridden mindset of Indians for restoring the human rights and dignity of a community that has for generations been cruelly ostracized as untouchables.
As the hierarchies of caste and patriarchy have dominated the Indian society through the centuries, it is not unusual that their consequences still dominate our social life. For example, unhygienic dry latrines that still exist in rural and suburban areas have to be manually cleaned and they are invariably cleaned by a particular dalit community and most of them happen to be women. This made Sulabh movement take into account the gender and caste dimension of social and sanitation problems. We also realized that the best way to ensure sanitation, human rights, and women’s education and employment is to adopt a holistic approach because human problems do not exist in isolation but in close proximity. One problem is difficult to be resolved unless other problems are also resolved.
Education, Livelihood and Liberation of Scavenger Women
Sulabh employed an integrated approach for educating and training the women scavengers for alternative employment. They ensured that these people first get motivated and develop a sense of their human potential, which are crucial for laying the foundation of their education and liberation. Alongside giving them basic literacy and training them in market-friendly trades, Sulabh also tried to develop their attitudinal and behavioural skills.
They provided them and their family members a special counselling on the importance of education, health and hygiene. Considering the extremely poor economic condition of 5 these women, NaiDisha gave the trainees a monthly stipend (in the beginning Rs. 1,800 that now has been revised and enhanced to Rs. 3,700) during the training period so that they do not go back to the earlier job of scavenging for their living. Like in our earlier experiments at other places, at NaiDisha, Alwar too, Sulabh adopted as far as possible a multi-faceted approach which has five interconnected stages—liberation, rehabilitation, vocational training, education of next generation, and social elevation.
Besides imparting functional literacy, diverse courses such as food processing, cutting and tailoring were designed to help trainees acquire skills that help them towards self-employment. Normally, such courses are designed for six months or one year but in the case of the scavenger women, they decided to extend it further (to two years, and in some individual cases even longer) considering the fact that they had been doing nothing except manual scavenging for generations. Thus, in our centre, the duration of the training varies depending upon the intelligence quotient of trainees. Based on our experience, they prolonged the duration of their training so that they get a detailed knowledge, both of the technical and practical side of training, which will enable them to compete in the open market.
The two-year training is followed by a one-year period of rehabilitation so that they get sufficient time for earning through putting to productive use their newly acquired skills. We generally put the trained women in two categories. In the first category are those who show initiatives and leadership qualities, who can set up their own enterprise with the help of subsidies and loans available from the government. Such women are able to produce quality material and they have the ability to make necessary arrangements for their marketing. In the second category are those trainees who do not have these abilities and leadership qualities. They are put under a cooperative society that provides them requisite help and assistance.
How Sulabh overcame the odds and obstacles
Transforming the lives of these women was a challenging task. Initially, the scavenging women were not very bothered about personal hygiene. Also, their lurking suspicion against the ‘other people’ reflected in their use of language, which hampered interpersonal communication. But our resource people were mentally prepared for these challenges. Sympathy, patience and perseverance yielded results. These women gradually opened up and showed their potential. Sulabh was able to instill in them a sense of self-worth and dignity. NaiDisha taught them how to begin a new life and rewrite their destiny.
When the first batch of scavenger women joined the training centre, 97 per cent of them were illiterate. During the training all were taught to read and write. Laxmi Nanda, who was unable to read or write, now expresses her feelings through poems. Now all of them have bank accounts, as they receive their monthly stipend through account payee cheques, and they know how to operate.
After their training, 115 women from Alwar have learnt to successfully market the goods they produce. Now these women have organised themselves into self-help groups and are availing credit facilities from banks so that they can market their products effectively, enabling them to earn a steady income.
After the initial hesitation, the people are now buying their food products. Their papad and handmade vermicelli are in great demand in the local markets. The women trained in beauty-care now provide service to the homes the doors of which were earlier closed to them, as they were ‘untouchables’.
Alongside these developments, all dry buckets or pit-latrines (which need to be cleaned manually) have been converted into the Sulabh twin-pit toilets to make Alwar a scavenging-free town.
They have not stopped to Alwar only, Sulabh continued work for women in Tonk, Ghaziabad and many more places. . Like Alwar, the aim of the project was to rehabilitate the scavengers and their children and to ensure the elimination of scavenging from these district once and for all.
Social acceptance and integration of rehabilitated women
Besides economic self-sufficiency, Sulabh endeavours have produced significant social impact. Untouchability has become a thing of the past in Alwar and Tonk. The social transformation brought about can be gauged by the fact that the same people who were earlier loathe to touch them now purchase products, including eatables, prepared by the ex-scavengers. The dalit women now provide beauty care services to the upper-caste women. The upper-caste families now invite them in various functions and ceremonies. To give but one example, in the first of its kinds, the priest of the local Jagannath temple invited Usha Chaumar of Alwar on his daughter and son’s marriage. At our initiative, the dalits offered prayers in temples for the first time in the local temple, and the Brahmin priests performed the puja at their homes. Sulabh encouraged people to come together for common puja and commensality. And they succeeded in their effort. The point of organising such activities is to overcome religious dogmatism and social discrimination.
Turned the pages of Indian History on many occasions
Sulabh keeps breaking the norms now and then for the welfare and betterment of women, especially widows and untouchables. In the recent past, Sulabh arranged a young widow’s marriage in the presence of around 500 widows in historic Gopinath temple in October 2017. It was not just an act of courage but a learning that women’s life does not end if she left alone due to some reason.
Not only this Sulabh took widows of Vrindavan, Varanasi and Uttar kashi under their Umbrella. Every widow is given Rs 2,000 per month by the Sulabh which takes care of their health and other needs and takes measures.
Sulabh has provided the government-run shelters in Vrindavan, five well-equipped ambulances along with medical equipment for providing timely and adequate medical attention for their treatment.
Sulabh also organises religious and cultural festivals for widows and takes them out to participate in Durga Puja festival in West Bengal, or a trip to tourist spots in Delhi, besides regularly organising Diwali and Holi festivals for them.
From 2013, Sulabh launched Holi for the Widow, now Indian widows break with tradition, fling coloured powders for Holi festival. This was the sixth consecutive year in the town where widows celebrated the Holi festival Band, Baja, Barat for Untouchables sisters by Sulabh The marriage of the two sisters was solemnised with much fanfare at the Bairwa dharmshala in Tonkin Feb. 2018. Sarita and Rajni earlier carried human excreta on their heads to eke out a living. But today they can hold their heads high in society. These women have chosen to call themselves Brahmins and now socially interact with upper classes.
If the civil society and government provide the suffering women effective means and tools, they are more than willing to break their shackles. Integrated approach is required, keeping in mind their various economic and human needs. We need the patience and perseverance to deeply engage with them, allay their fears and build their self-confidence. The question of gender inequality, as we can see in the challenge of women’s education and employment, should not be seen in isolation but as a part of the larger structural discriminations of caste, class and race. Though all women suffer some common problems due to the deeply entrenched culture of patriarchy, not all women suffer from the curse of caste, illiteracy or economic slavery. In other words, women are not a monolith and the great question of gender inequality must be seen and tackled with other institutionalized discriminations like caste, class and race.
Above all, there is a need to adopt a holistic and imaginative approach to ensure women’s education and employment because these problems exist with other troubles that women face in their everyday life.
Sulabh accomplished this difficult task of educating and liberating the women through a pragmatic, culturally sensitive and holistic approach that combined an application of technological innovation with imaginative initiatives of social reforms.
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