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NGO Works to Change Lives of India's 'Untouchables'

In India, half a million women work as scavengers removing human waste from the streets with only bowls and brooms. Born into the lowest caste in society, these women face discrimination, but one non-governmental organization is helping them to create better lives while solving the problem of poor sanitation. VOA U.N. correspondent Margaret Besheer has the story written by intern Maha Saad.

Continuing an ancient tradition in India, most lower caste women work as scavengers after marriage. They simply follow in the footsteps of their female relatives.

Laxmi Nanda, a 27-year-old woman from the northwest Indian state of Rajasthan, worked as a scavenger for nine years. Every day she removed the waste, transporting it in a bowl carried on her head. "It was a very dirty job. We never liked it. We were always suffering from some kind of diseases and things like that-no respect in the society. And it was very degrading. We never wanted to do that," she said, describing her past life

With the help of Bindeshwar Pathak, the founder of the Sulabh International Social Service Organization, one of India's largest NGOs, women like Laxmi no longer do this work. Sulabh retrains the women so they can find other work doing embroidery or making noodles and pickles.

A lack of infrastructure forces many people, particularly in rural areas, to defecate in public. This continues the need for women to clean up. But Pathak has developed affordable and environmentally friendly toilets, distributing more than a million of them across India and freeing many women from scavenging.

"Because of the technologies, now they are not required to clean human excreta manually and they have [been] relieved from this occupation. These two technologies have brought tremendous change in the Indian society. Now they have become self-employed, empowered, [and] they earn their own
livelihood," Pathak said.

He says that these women are now a part of mainstream society holding dignified jobs.

At Sulabh's center, the women are given clean, new blue saris. Lalta Nanda, a 32-year-old woman from Alwar, says her sari has given her and other women status. "This blue sari gives us respect in our society. This is the uniform of the center, but it brings on respect in the eyes of the people. This gives off our identity, that we are someone," she said.

Pathak says Sulabh has improved sanitation and decreased some diseases, installing toilets in homes and public places. "The toilets are being built both in urban areas, rural areas, and in public places, tourist places, religious places. When we started, millions of children used to die due to diarrhea, dehydration, cholera. Now the number has gone down to half a million."

In addition to its work in India, Sulabh currently has projects in Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, and Nepal.