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Tackling discrimination in India

This November sees the start of the international campaign '16 days against gender violence’, a fight against inequality and violence against women around the world; a campaign that Christian Aid lends its full support to.

To mark this campaign, this month’s partner focus looks at the work of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA) in India and its work with women who suffer caste discrimination in India.

Bharati DeviEveryday, thousands of women across India clear human waste from dry latrines using only their bare hands and an A5 piece of cardboard or plastic. It’s a humiliating occupation that is still commonplace despite a 1993 law prohibiting it.

These women are among India’s estimated 1.3 million ‘safai karmachari’ or manual scavengers. They clear excrement and urine from dry latrines – toilets that are not plumbed into the sewerage system.

Wearing nothing to protect themselves from the vomit-inducing smell or the real risk of disease, these women face daily humiliation and discrimination and are forced to live in dehumanising poverty.

The vast majority of manual scavengers are dalit women, the lowest of the caste hierarchy. The work they do has been called both a form of caste discrimination and a form of gender violence. 

SKA is challenging the system that ensnares women in this degrading occupation. It has, with others, successfully influenced the end of the practice in several southern Indian states.

It has now trained its sights on India’s northern states, and hopes to see an end to manual scavenging by 31 December 2010 – finally fully implementing the 1993 law.

Building self-esteem

Forced to work in unthinkable conditions, humiliated and discriminated against, many women currently employed as manual scavengers never thought it possible that they could leave and find other work.

But SKA supports women to take the bold step of leaving the job once and for all by helping them to access government resources aimed at providing rehabilitation and alternative employment.

Bharati Devi was encouraged to leave her job as a manual scavenger by an SKA activist. She now works as a domestic help and is proud she has left; ‘I am now able to earn more money, as well as command respect.’

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