The ongoing Swachh Bharat Abhiyan has brought smiles to the faces of women who work in possibly the most marginalised of all sectors of work in Mumbai: waste-pickers. Unseen, unheard, unregistered, uneducated, unprotected, their work to separate waste, so that the recycling industry gets its raw material and the city’s over-loaded dumping grounds are not pressurised more, would have been largely disregarded, had it not been for the Stree Mukti Sanghatana (SMS).
The Sanghatana has tirelessly worked from 1975, through its Parisar Vikas programme, to organise the waste-pickers, educate them and provide the women with health and counselling services. More than 5,000 women have so far benefitted from the organisation’s continued pursuit of its goal: that waste-picking should be given its rightful place in the economy of a city.
“It saves the municipal corporation hundreds of crores every year, it provides raw material to the waste recycling industries, besides other things. But the women (and children) waste-pickers are among the poorest, and most susceptible to illness and social atrocities, including rape,” said Jyoti Mhapsekar, president and one of the founding members of the sanghatana. Through this and other programmes – day care centres, family counselling centres, publication of books and CDs on women’s issues, adolescent sensitisation and so on – the sanghatana has worked at bringing about women’s liberation in the most marginalised sections of Mumbai, and gradually spreading it to Thane, Navi Mumbai, Dombivli, among other parts of the state. Women’s liberation is particularly complex, says Mhapsekar, because so many different sections of women are raising struggles in their own ways on different fronts.
The sanghatana began work on a slightly different and artistic note. Its cultural troupe began with a compendium of songs and two books, based on the theme of women’s rights. Mhapsekar, then a college librarian, dabbled in writing plays. Her twin interests of play-writing and women’s issues resulted in the sanghatana putting up the Marathi play Mulgi Zali Ho (A girl is born) in 1983. It was a runaway success, with successive troupes having completed more than 3,000 shows so far.
The play has achieved cult status today. It touches upon taboo subjects such as gender inequality, gender injustice and domestic violence. Discussing women’s rights and the place of a girl child through a popular play allowed the sanghatana to reach and penetrate sections that would have otherwise treated these ideas as too elitist and foreign. Another well-known play was Ha Prashnach Chukicha Aahe (This question itself is wrong) centred around women in a factory being denied the right to marry.
“Our cultural troupe is an autonomous group. We put emphasis on songs, keeping in mind the low rate of literacy among the women we work with. The songs are composed by our activists and touch upon issues like literacy, violence, unorganised workers, political rights, dowry and rape. The performances are presented in slums, villages, colleges, offices, women’s groups, on a makeshift stage, in auditoriums or in open grounds in slums. The songs are usually sung before a play,” said Mhapsekar.
The Sanghatana also undertakes ‘yatras’ (journeys) of 10-15 days across the state, to reach a larger audience. In this, 40 to 60 activists travel in a bus through a particular region and stage their plays in collaboration with local activists.
The sanghatana’s sustained work with marginalised women, especially waste-pickers, resulted in the city’s first child-care centre for children of waste-picker women, an adult literacy campaign in Chembur and the rag-pickers’ union being formed in 1989-90. Three year later, Sharada Sathe, also a founding member, was appointed to the Maharashtra State Women’s Commission. The sanghatana has truly made its impact on policy and action on women’s issues.
Ten years ago, the sanghatana constructed its first bio-gas plant for the Brihanmumbai Municipal Corporation (BMC). Among other notable accomplishments, it helped form a federation of the self-help groups of women waste-pickers it had organised earlier. It has raised resources for educating more than 5,000 children of waste-picker women so far. “These children deserve a better chance in life, away from the dumping grounds,” the sanghatana believes.
Some women whose lives were touched by the sanghatana have progressed to other, better jobs. Many who continue as waste-pickers wear uniforms with protective masks, know their rights, access health-care and counselling, and believe they are not doing “kachre ka kaam.”
About their work
* Stree Mukti Sanghatana started work in 1975 and started publishing its journal
* Its theatre group is widely travelled and popular. It started out with the iconic play Mulgi Zhali Ho, to promote the cause of the girl child. Over the years, the group has done more than 5,000 shows of this and other plays, revolving around the theme of women’s literacy and violence against women
* It has done a wide range of activist work among many sections of women – from fighting against domestic
* violence and gender inequality to encouraging women’s literacy, building a network among women and organising rag-pickers
* It has organised more than 2,000 children, mostly those of rag-pickers in Mumbai, and sent them to schools. It runs day-care centres for children in Borivli, Andheri and Malad
* It publishes a magazine called Jidnyasa.