26th January 2002. An ordinary day for millions. A holiday for some living in this part of the world…but for 32 women, living in a small, unheard village in Madhya Pradesh, it a day to go back to and relive with a sigh and a smile. Such is the thing about past, it’s a wonderful place to visit if you’ve dealt with it. On this 26th day of January, 32 women together and at once left the inhuman, derogatory and filthy manual scavenging “work”, by burning the basket in which they carried human excreta as symbolism for expressing them burning their old filthy life. For those of who are unaware about this grim reality lived by many, please click here or here.
A 43 year old woman, Chaman Bi, belonging to the Hela community, lives in Bhaurasa. Being a part of the larger Dalit Muslim community, due to her sins of her previous birth (or so she is told), she worked as a manual scavenger. Forcefully, obviously, because who would willingly want to carry human feces on their head in a simple bamboo basket, with it dripping on the hair and face, walk like that while being careful not to drop it anywhere, to throw it outside the village, in front of their own houses? And for what? A few stale rotis (Indian bread) and daily abuses and caste-based derogatory name-calling? But this was “her work” and she had to do it, lest “log kya kahenge?”, or so said the upper-caste Muslim community.
Chaman Bi got married and came to her husband’s house with dreams of living a happy life. On her first day in her new house, her mother-in-law gave her this “work” and said, “This is our main livelihood. When I got married and came here, my mother-in-law gave it to me, which now I give to you. It’s our responsibility for society.” Considering this as something passed down to her from her mother-in-law, she started working regularly. How much ever I try, I will never be able to document what she must have gone through, each day, every moment. More than anything, she questioned herself crazy, “Why this life?” There were times when coming back home after cleaning 60 kaccha toilets, she couldn’t eat. (I, myself couldn’t eat for 3 days after speaking to her and I’m shivering as I write this.) The stench got so bad, bathing three times also made no difference. She had no friends, nobody to talk to, because nobody even wanted to sit beside her. What her children went through is another story, something I’d leave for another time.
After a lot of talks, meetings, and importantly, time, Garima Abhiyan volunteers were able to make her see what she thought was not a possibility, that she too, had the right to live with dignity, for which she didn’t have to do anything, she didn’t have to earn it.
Today, Chaman Bi is a production center in-charge and sleeps every night not wondering what she did wrong to deserve this fate, but with dreams of making her production center one of the best in the world. Chaman Bi is a production center in-charge of Nayi Disha now, a unit producing apparel, home furnishing and stationery items. She is an inspiration to not just us, but for another 20 women, for who she sets an example by leading. To know more about these heroes without capes, follow us here.
As I write this, the 32 other women are coming back from their independent micro-enterprises, MNREGA work and anganwadis, coming back home with what was snatched away, what they refused to live without…dignity and a dream to lead a fulfilling life.