Photos: India’s women sanitation workers struggle for dignity, inclusion

UPDATED ON JUL 02, 2019 07:30 PM IST
58-year-old Meenadevi cleans dry toilets in a Muslim neighbourhood in Bihar’s Rohtas district. She swiftly picks up the dried waste and human excreta using cardboard pads, shoves it in her partly broken bamboo basket and heads off to dispose it in a nearby field. Manual scavengers and sanitation workers need no introduction, yet they are so easily forgotten. (Sudharak Olwe )
Under the blazing sun, in her slightly torn and worn-out saree, Meendevi walks for about four kilometres back and forth, making her way through the fields to throw the waste in a manure pit. “With the amount of discrimination we face, what else can we do to feed our stomach?” (Sudharak Olwe)
Santosh Valmik (third from left) survived a septic tank accident in 1992. “We usually drink before we take a plunge into such tanks in order to help us cope with the smell,” he says. Now he works with his wife (right) and two sons as a regular Safai Karamchari. (Sudharak Olwe)
Mukeshdevi began cleaning toilets, dry latrines and open drains after she got married about 25 years ago, since her mother-in-law was too old to work. As a woman manual scavenger from Meerut’s Bhagwatpura, she cleans 10 houses, either daily or on alternate days depending upon the demand of work, earning up to 2000 rupees a month. (Sudharak Olwe)
Veiling her face and hair with her purple dupatta, 42-year-old Mukeshdevi enters the toilet and cleans it with bare hands. Mukeshdevi and her husband Sukhraj somehow manage to make ends meet with their income of less than rupees 10,000 every month. (Sudharak Olwe)
“This work is menial and insulting. It also brings in a lot of diseases. When I was young, we used to hate it when my mother and grandmother used to work with their bare hands,” says Vidhi from Ghaziabad, Farukhnagar of her mother Manju’s profession. (Sudharak Olwe)
35-year-old Manju was in hurry when Olwe met her, as her shift at the school where she works as a Safai Karmachari (sweeper/cleaner) was about to begin. Manju earns rupees 2,500 per month, which she says is a raise from what she used to get earlier. Manju’s modest house in Ghaziabad’s Farukhnagar is full of her daughter Vidhi’s books. (Sudharak Olwe)

58-year-old Meenadevi cleans dry toilets in a Muslim neighbourhood in Bihar’s Rohtas district. She swiftly picks up the dried waste and human excreta using cardboard pads, shoves it in her partly broken bamboo basket and heads off to dispose it in a nearby field. Manual scavengers and sanitation workers need no introduction, yet they are so easily forgotten. (Sudharak Olwe )

Under the blazing sun, in her slightly torn and worn-out saree, Meendevi walks for about four kilometres back and forth, making her way through the fields to throw the waste in a manure pit. “With the amount of discrimination we face, what else can we do to feed our stomach?” (Sudharak Olwe)

Santosh Valmik (third from left) survived a septic tank accident in 1992. “We usually drink before we take a plunge into such tanks in order to help us cope with the smell,” he says. Now he works with his wife (right) and two sons as a regular Safai Karamchari. (Sudharak Olwe)

Mukeshdevi began cleaning toilets, dry latrines and open drains after she got married about 25 years ago, since her mother-in-law was too old to work. As a woman manual scavenger from Meerut’s Bhagwatpura, she cleans 10 houses, either daily or on alternate days depending upon the demand of work, earning up to 2000 rupees a month. (Sudharak Olwe)

Veiling her face and hair with her purple dupatta, 42-year-old Mukeshdevi enters the toilet and cleans it with bare hands. Mukeshdevi and her husband Sukhraj somehow manage to make ends meet with their income of less than rupees 10,000 every month. (Sudharak Olwe)

“This work is menial and insulting. It also brings in a lot of diseases. When I was young, we used to hate it when my mother and grandmother used to work with their bare hands,” says Vidhi from Ghaziabad, Farukhnagar of her mother Manju’s profession. (Sudharak Olwe)

35-year-old Manju was in hurry when Olwe met her, as her shift at the school where she works as a Safai Karmachari (sweeper/cleaner) was about to begin. Manju earns rupees 2,500 per month, which she says is a raise from what she used to get earlier. Manju’s modest house in Ghaziabad’s Farukhnagar is full of her daughter Vidhi’s books. (Sudharak Olwe)

About The Gallery

India has taken significant strides to improve access to sanitation. However, critical stakeholders engaged in sanitation work still face numerous challenges around safety, health, dignity, and rehabilitation. Photographer Sudharak Olwe, who has been documenting their struggle for two decades is showing his work 'Include the Excluded' at the India Habitat Centre in New Delhi as part of a WaterAid organized initiative. His images show the reality regarding their safety, health, dignity, and rehabilitation.

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