Intersectional Invisibility: Indian Women Manual Scavengers

by | Jan 22, 2024

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About Aastha Malipatil

Aastha is a student at the National Law School of India University, Bangalore. A member of the editorial board at the National Law School of India Review, she is passionate about Human Rights Law, International Law and Dispute Resolution.

Manual scavenging, which involves the picking up of human excreta by hand, is one of the most prevalent forms of caste discrimination in India. Along with caste, another system that plagues India is that of patriarchy. Naturally, people who are caught between the intersection of both these systems, such as Dalit women, experience dual discrimination. While caste is the main factor that acts against manual scavengers who are men, women doing this work face double discrimination not only on the basis of caste but also patriarchy. Reports by various entities and Non-Governmental Organisations suggest that 99% of Manual Scavengers in India are Dalits, and among these, a shocking 95% are women. The existing law on manual scavenging and the scheme accompanying it also fail to account for the particularities these Dalit women experience.

 Brahminical Patriarchy Contextualised: Women in Manual Scavenging and the Law

In Safai Karamchari Andolan v Union of India, the Supreme Court was dealing with a writ petition filed for the effective implementation of the 1993 Act which sought to eradicate manual scavenging. In the midst of deciding the petition, The Prohibition of Employment of Manual Scavengers and their Rehabilitation Act 2013 (PEMSRA) was enacted. The court held that the PEMSRA was a needed step towards eradication and also embodied within it articles 17 (abolition of untouchability) and 21 (right to life and liberty) of the Constitution. What the court did not do, however, was look at the concern of manual scavenging from an intersectional perspective, thereby limiting its analysis mainly to caste factors.

The PEMSRA is accompanied by the Self-Employment Scheme for Rehabilitation of Manual Scavengers (SRMS). The first problem arises with the definition of the activity itself – the act under section 2(g) recognises those people who were manual scavengers at the time of commencement of the act or after. This specifically impacts women, both due to them being the overwhelming majority and also due to decreased social mobility. There have been numerous accounts of women who have left Manual Scavenging with promises of a better life by the state, but are now sitting unemployed due to state inaction and almost no social mobility. Moreover, the hyperfocus on unsanitary latrines has lead to the non-identification of manual scavengers who clean excreta from other places such as open drains, sewers, etc., who are mainly women. Moreover, the SRMS provides a one-time cash assistance of INR 40,000 (481.3 USD) to only one member of the family. This assumes that women have bank accounts, while in reality, most women do not own bank accounts and these loans go to male members with no accountability for their use.

Similar caste and gender-based intersectional barriers arise in provisions of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act 2015, which guarantees 100 days’ wage employment to at least one adult member for unskilled manual work. Under this, the panchayat, a form of local government, decides who gets to enrol in the scheme from each village. This allows the panchayat to effectively create gender and caste barriers. Women are actively excluded from the scheme, being told either that they aren’t eligible (caste discrimination) or that there is no work for women (gender discrimination).

While men have the option to migrate to cities to find alternative employment, women must often remain in their villages due to gendered household labour. Within the village, they depend heavily on upper-caste households who pay them around 25 to 30 INR (0.3 – 0.36 USD) per month, as a result of apathy towards Dalits and towards women. This amount makes supporting an entire household infeasible.

There are no provisions in the PEMSRA that account for impact on health. This is detrimental to women because not only do they face the general health issues associated with manual scavenging, but the exposure to noxious substances severely affects their reproductive systems. Women have also reported miscarriages due to the demanding work conditions. Thus, the discrimination meted out is double layered – based on both caste and gender.

If manual scavenging is to be eliminated completely, it is crucial to account for factors that prohibit women from finding alternate employment, from benefitting from cash assistance, and from being adequately represented in the surveys conducted. Active efforts must be undertaken to ensure that apart from socio-economic aspects, health issues particular to women are also kept in mind. There is a pressing need for legislators to recognise that seemingly gender-neutral laws may not only fail to help Dalit women, but could even worsen their already critical situation.

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