From the bylanes of Alwar where she began collecting night soil from houses at the age of seven, to addressing the World Water Forum in France, Usha Chaumar, 36, has come a long way.
Chaumar was seven when she joined her family work. "That was our tradition. We did not know anything else. I was married at 10 and did the same work at my husband's place," she says.
Chaumar will now speak about manual scavenging and the role of women in sanitation at the global event in Marseille, France, on March 14.
"People used to treat me as an untouchable," says Chaumar. "Now, the same people are so eager to mingle with me."
Opportunity knocked one summer morning in 2003 when Bindeshwar Pathak of Sulabh International stopped Chaumar and other women carrying night soil on their heads on a street of Alwar.
Chaumar recalls the group had hesitated. "We were scared as none of us had spoken to an unknown man before. He asked us why we were doing this work and if we wanted to do something else. Our first reaction was of disbelief," she told HT.
But Chaumar and some others got over their skepticism and joined Nai Disha, a centre run by Pathak in Alwar where they were taught to sow, embroider, make pickles, papad, incense sticks, apply mehendi and trained as beauticians.
"I used to earn R200 to R300 by scavenging. But now I earn around R2,700," says Chaumar, now the president of Sulabh International. The women sell the products to people at whose houses they used to work, and to shops and hotels.
Chaumar and 28 others women have already been to the US to talk about their lives as a scavenger.
In France, Chaumar will talk about the change in the lives of women who gave up the ignominious work for a respectable life, says Pathak.