Tag Archives: Women

Plight of the HIV+ widow

Vrinda Sharma

CHANDIGARH: “The only thing worse than being HIV+ is being an HIV+ widow,” says 26-year-old Pooja Thakur, who lost her husband, a truck driver in Punjab, to AIDS five years ago. Pooja is one of the many widows in the State who are shunned by society once they contract HIV from their husbands.

Compared to the social stigma faced by such women, the medical complications of the disease look frivolous. Apart from being considered a “bad omen” at social functions, most such women are treated as outcasts by their own families.

“My in-laws blamed me for my husband’s death and threw me and my three sons, two of whom are HIV+, out on the street. Because of the social stigma, no one provides shelter or job to an HIV+ person and the females, especially young widows, usually fall prey to sexual abuse,” says Pooja who works as president of the Chandigarh Network of Positive People (CNP+).

While a few of these women manage to find some source of employment, usually as maids by hiding their disease, many fall prey to prostitution. “I lost my husband and I was denied my right over what he left behind. Worst, for no fault of mine, I too had HIV. At first I thought of committing suicide but there was no one to look after my children, so I left the village in Fazilka and went to Ludhiana, but poverty drove me to prostitution,” rues a 26-year-old mother of two whose husband contracted the disease by sharing infected needles.

According to the National AIDS Control Organisation, over 17 per cent of HIV/AIDS cases in Punjab are caused by sharing of infected needles, the national percentage for which is barely 3 per cent.

According to the CNP+ Programme Coordinator, “The national training module for prevention of transmission of HIV to children, 2002, is flawed because there is no consideration of the socio-economic variables of rural India. All efforts of the government agencies are focused at getting photos clicked and putting up a colourful exhibition followed by lunch and tea for the guests and VIPs.”

According to a senior official of the Punjab State AIDS Control Society, over 50,000 people visited the Red Ribbon Express, a special train run to create awareness among the masses about HIV/AIDS. The official added that the Government grants widows a pension and free education to all children irrespective of their HIV status. The pension received by a widow, HIV+ or not, is Rs.250 per month, which comes once in a few months, according to Meenaj Vij, who has been HIV+ for the past 14 years.

“Though the first few years are difficult, each widow learns to live for the sake of her children. A few lucky ones have a supportive family or a job, but even the unlucky ones carry on hoping for a better future for their children,” she adds.

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a short-lived promise to manual scavengers

Back in May 2010, sixty Dalits, who had worked their entire lives as manual scavengers, burned the baskets they used for collecting human excreta outside the District Collector’s office here. They had just been employed as sweepers by the local administration under a rehabilitation scheme. Five months later, all of them are without work, having been suspended, astonishingly, for not working hard enough.

“It took us a lot of courage to set those baskets on fire and announce that we were free. But now, for many of us the only way to feed our family is to pick up the same basket again,” said a disheartened worker. Difficult, demeaning

The district administration’s charge against the suspended Dalits is that they were “not working properly, being non-serious and lazy.” But the fact remains that they had spent the better part of their lives in one of most difficult and demeaning occupations — the inhuman practice of manually disposing of human excreta from dry latrines with brooms and baskets, work which violates human dignity and which is today banned by the statute.

“It is amusing that some time ago the government claimed that the district was free of manual scavenging. Now they say that no one in the administration is lazy except the manual scavengers! At least now they accept that the obnoxious practice still exists and by not eradicating it they are violating the Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act 1993,” said Rajkumar, State president of the Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA).

Collector S.P. Srow said that even though over 200 manual scavengers were offered jobs on a salary of Rs. 4,400 a month, they did not work properly and hence had to be fired. “It was ensured that they were rehabilitated even though the Supreme Court gave only guidelines and not directions. I made sure that they were employed as sweepers but they were not working at all and it would have been wrong to waste government money on them anymore.”

The Collector said he condemned manual scavenging and wished that the practice were eradicated. “Even today if they give an affidavit saying they will work wholeheartedly, I will happily make arrangements for their employment.”

A few women who had left scavenging after decades started the degrading work again because they are the sole breadwinners. “But we talked to them, made them realise that resuming the inhuman act will lead to greater health problems for themselves and be an impediment to a thousand others who are trying to end this practice once and for all. Finally, they pledged that they would die rather than contemplate manual scavenging as a job option,” said another woman, who had left the job.

Asked why the manual scavengers were employed only as sweepers, the Collector said: “There is an obvious lack of education and skill among the women but they were employed as sweepers because the administration needed more sweepers at that time.” He did not respond to a query how the need for sweepers was being met in their absence.

Occupational dignity

“The least that can be done is to provide a dignified occupation for them. A few months as sweeper can only be a temporary relief, not a sustainable rehabilitation package for the entire family,” said Wilson Bezwada, president of SKA, who has spearheaded the fight against manual scavenging and is now leading the Samajik Parivarthan Yatra, a strategic programme of bus trips from five different corners of India, through 20 States, culminating in New Delhi.

The aim of the yatra is to motivate and inspire others who are still engaged in manual scavenging to free themselves.

“Apart from a rehabilitation package to ensure a dignified livelihood, free education should be provided to those many generations of a scavenging family in order to ensure that the coming generations do not fall into the trap of poverty and caste,” said Mr. Bezwada.

“Instead of giving them grants for permanent employment, the administration employed them [the Dalits] before floods hit the area, made them clean the gutters and the sewerage system, which is as bad as manual scavenging. Then it claims that they are not working,” said Mr. Rajkumar. “For the satisfaction of the Collector, I gave an affidavit taking responsibility that the women would work. Also, residents signed that they were working properly, but none of the submissions helped. We met the Haryana Chief Minister, who gave us a patient hearing, but nothing was done,” he added.

“There is a law which makes this work illegal but the world gives enough reasons for an uneducated poor Dalit to still do scavenging,” said Mr. Bezwada.” Manual scavenging is integrally linked with the caste system and is imposed on certain Dalit sub-caste groups. Invariably, women, comprising 82 per cent of the caste, carry the burden.

Apology demanded

The andolan demands an official apology from the Government of India for having violated human dignity and human rights of safai karamcharis for so many years. Other basic demands include demolition of dry latrines and punishment to dry latrine owners and all those who forced safai karamcharis to clean those latrines under the SC/ST Atrocity Prohibition Act, 1989.

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the invisible shame – manual scavengers

Each morning a group of Dalit women step outside their homes to “fulfil their social role” of cleaning dry latrines with their brooms and bare hands. They then carry human excrement in pots and baskets on their heads.

Braving the worst possible form of caste oppression, these women lead unhygienic lives — devoid of dignity and rights — for wages as low as Rs.15 a month.

“I was not used to doing this work before I was married but my mother-in-law forced me. I don’t blame her; it was the only way we could feed our families. We were told that our ancestors did this and this was the only work we could do as Dalits,” says Kusum, who left scavenging ten months ago to work as a sweeper.

Biggest problem

“The biggest problem is that manual scavenging is seen as an occupation or a social role instead of an inhuman atrocity with a shameful social sanction. I don’t believe we need to rehabilitate people. Once you make them realise it is an atrocity, they will quit,” says Wilson Bezwada, national convener of Safai Karmachari Andolan (SKA).

Mr. Bezwada is leading a campaign that he hopes will liberate millions by this December-end. Much of the struggle involves liberating manual scavengers from the psychological burden of the caste system as they are invariably Dalits and almost always women.

“Every day after dumping the waste I used to go back to the same houses to collect stale food and beg for money. I worked every single day for over 40 years, even during rains which caused the basket’s contents to seep out and cover me in filth. When I left the basket, I felt I was reborn,” says Krishna, now a sweeper.

According to SKA, there were over 11,000 manual scavengers in Haryana five years ago. Today the number is less then two dozen. “But the Administration always claimed the State was free of manual scavengers and dry latrines, even when hundreds were working in the dry toilets of the Railways and the Municipalities,” says Rajkumar of SKA, Haryana.

Caste hierarchy and untouchability prevented women from rising to any other job. “We don’t choose to do this. We’re born into it because we are at the absolute bottom of society. The job came as a legacy. But I made sure my children never touched those baskets,” says Manju whose eldest son is in college.

Though houses have proper toilets now, they are not connected with the sewer lines. The sewage falls into an open gutter which is manually cleaned when it overflows. “This is worse than the dry toilets because the accumulated and dried sewage has to be swept and collected in baskets for dumping,” says Rajan Devi, a manual scavenger.

Inhuman conditions

Until SKA intervened, the women worked in inhuman conditions and faced discrimination.

To keep us from coming into the house, we were made to use a rickety wooden staircase against an exterior wall. When I was eight months pregnant, I slipped. Instead of having pity, they abused me for polluting their house,” recalls Saroj.

Cleaning dry toilets and manually removing human waste is a violation of human rights and dignity and was prohibited over 17 years ago. The Employment of Manual Scavengers and Construction of Dry Latrines (Prohibition) Act, 1993, lays down a jail term of up to one year or fine of Rs.2,000.

However, there were no prosecutions until 2005 when 21 people were convicted in Haryana. “But they got bail the next day. I should add that Haryana claims to be a scavenger-free State” says Mr. Wilson. Workers cleaning open gutters, manholes and septic tanks, which mean greater risks, are not covered by the Act.

A petition by SKA in the Supreme Court in 2003 forced the State Governments to act in 2007. “Though administrations will deny manual scavenging, municipalities and the Railways are the biggest employers. Indian Railways responded to one of our PILs saying they would take over 30-40 years for the transition and promised to ‘consider’ the court order. The tracks have to be cleaned manually since coaches have the ‘open discharge’ system, and most stations are not equipped with concretised platforms allowing waste to be washed away with jets of water.”

Most scavengers have respiratory problems, asthma, tuberculosis and jaundice. To escape the sight and smell, many male scavengers take drugs and alcohol and eventually succumb to diseases. As Mr. Wilson puts it, “They cannot tolerate the smell and sights and drugs or liquor are their form of escape from reality until the next round when they will go on and start cleaning.”

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