115 women will be attending seminar in Paris

Usha Chomar and Guddi Athwal would not have even dreamed of a foreign sojourn let alone speaking at an international forum in Paris on the issue of health problems that manual scavengers have had to face.

Both Usha and Guddi have put their past behind them and are among the 115 manual scavengers of the Alwar District of Rajasthan who have since been rehabilitated. They both will be attending the World Water Forum seminar in Paris on Saturday where Usha will be narrating her experience and the several health problems than manual scavengers have had to cope with.

It was not easy for these 115 women to break free of the social shackles that kept them chained to a life of indignity and prevented them from breaking free. The people they worked for would not let them go as they would then be left with the hassle of disposing of their night soil.

Sulabh International, a social service organisation which pulled these women out of the rut, had to construct modern toilets in their homes in order to allow these women to lead a dignified life. These women, however, were hesitant to be rehabilitated as they were not completely sure of what the transition held in store for them. The entire process of rehabilitating manual scavengers in Alwar and later in the Tonk district of Rajasthan took several years. Now, each one is given a stipend of Rs. 2700 per month and is engaged in local production of pickles and jute bags, in embroidery, and as beauticians.

“We are no more untouchables. We are part of the society and accepted. The priest who once stopped us from entering the temple now invites us to weddings in his family,” said Usha.

Now a fluent speaker in English, Usha did not hide her pride in sharing the dais with Union Minister of Rural Development Jairam Ramesh and Sulabh International chairman Bindeshwar Pathak. “Never in my dream did I think I'll sit next to you [Mr. Ramesh]. I want my children to read and be like you.”

Mr. Ramesh returned the compliment calling her his new friend and telling her that times had changed. “I'm talking about sanitation here and you are going to France.”

He exhorted her to contest in the elections, enter the panchayats, the State Assembly and then become an MP. “But choose the right party,” he advised her.

Mr. Ramesh promised to open sanitation clubs in village schools with a grant of Rs. 3,000 to involve school students in the awareness campaign about cleanliness and a green environment.

He also called upon political parties to give priorities to social issues in their manifestos giving sanitation optimal importance. He wondered how a country could take pride in launching satellites if it did not have proper toilets available for about 50 percent of its population.

  • We are part of the society and accepted, says Usha Chomar

  • NGO Sulabh International helped them break free of their social shackles