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Female Hindu Sanitation Workers: Locked In A Struggle For Life And Dignity

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The case of poor Hindu women, working as sanitary workers in Sindh, deserves empathy. In a majority of cases they are the sole breadwinners of the family (while some of the husbands died during cleaning chores) trying to support families. The extent of neglect and discrimination they face for being Hindus creates a situation of intersectional marginalization. One such story, of a woman, is documented here. She was attacked and beaten when mopping floors along with her son, in Sindh.

Toiling for bread, battling against hate
Lower castes in the Hindu community often find opportunities to earn bread through jobs in sanitation. I have personally noticed this to be the case in Sindh, during all of the years spent moving through various Hindu localities. The daily struggle these women have to face starts from home; scanty earnings fall short to support their families, and the situation has only worsened in the economic paralysis brought by the pandemic.
When they step out to work, the social stigma comes to haunt them. They are exposed to a spectrum of hate-based names. Why? For merely being bold enough to try running the household and feeding their children. Words such as ‘achoot’ (untouchable) follow these Hindu women wherever they go.
Sanitation workers, mostly from Hindu and Christian communities, are facing an inexcusable neglect. They are invisible and ignored in the larger societal sphere. In the first place, the sanitary workers come from miserably poor and marginalized circles. An added layer of plight is added by their religion (which is not Islam) as that is seen as sufficient reason to discriminate agianst them. While they toil to earn some from the job that comes without security, they are also battling against a violation of basic dignity as a human.
The disgrace must hurt immensely.

Thrashed and thrown into despair
A few months ago, Meena (name changed to protect identity), a Hindu woman, employed as a sanitary worker, was beaten and abused by an angry mob of Muslim men. This unfortunate incident occurred in Shikarpur city. Research on the case reveals that Meena had to go through the traumatic episode because she was a Hindu. Cases and statistics indicate that a majority of the Hindu women working in sanitation departments in the north of Sindh are vulnerable to harassment and discrimination.
Jyoti Valimaiki, a 38-year-old sanitary worker, was another victim I met. She spoke to Ravadar: “As per our routine, we were occupied with our daily duty. I was mopping the floor and my son was cleaning it – when, with a sudden sound, a few men broke in.” She says that the mob started beating and abusing them, while they were clueless about why they were attacking. “They were so charged, and not ready to hear a word, while they continued hurling curse words.”
She continues on a heartbreaking note: “There was no issue. And yet the constant abusing and beating of my son. Why us?” Jyoti asks. She also believes that their faith gave them a reason to violently assault them. “Is it because we are Hindu? No one abuses Muslim women like that,” she said.
The powerless victims in this case, Jyoti and her son, approached the municipal officer to register their complaint, but to little avail as she explains: “They did not hear me out. My voice does not matter.” She went to the police station after that but even there the complaint was not lodged. “Another refusal, another case impossible to report.”
Something from within kept her going and she tried reaching out to the elected representatives, and they did not take an action either. “I don’t want anything but please stop attacking and abusing us,” Jyoti appeals to the majority community. “Give us our rights: we are humans too and have the need to feel protected.”
She also added that her late husband used to work in the municipal sector, and died during duty last year. “We still haven’t received his death allowance, and to make it worse, the job allocation on ‘son quota’ is only reserved for Muslims.” This, while it is non-Muslims serving as cleaners and janitors across the country – with little or next to no security of life and job.

Out, exposed for survival and sustenance
Ravi Valmaiki, 29, is active as a social worker in Sindh. “It makes me angry to think that the Hindu sanitary female workers are facing harassment and discriminatory cases while they are not getting their pay on time,” Ravi said. He urged the government to step forward for resolving their issues.
“These Hindu women, serving in sanitation, dedicate their day and night, blood and sweat, risking life just to meet their basic survival needs – that of ‘roti, kapra and makan'(bread, clothing and shelter).”
The bigotry and bias against the Hindu female sanitary force compels them to think they are unable to handle people and protect themselves so they end up choosing to quit the work and live in great distress. This intersectional marginalization fuels social isolation – which impacts the larger minority community, struggling to survive in Pakistan where a specific faction of Sunni Muslims are in majority.
Sanitation workers are those whose profession includes cleaning toilets, roads, public places, sewers, manholes/gutters and operating pumping stations. They provide an invaluable service to the people, one that is crucial to routine life and the environment in a municipality. “Due to limited resources they are forced to work in conditions that expose them to serious consequences. The debilitating and infectious issues they struggle with are in addition to the social stigma.”
Ravi Valmaiki further adds that the “town municipal committee should give equal rights to Hindu female sanitary workers as many of their men died in the last five years while doing their duty, but till date their sons could not be allowed jobs in the specifically designed job quota.”
The discrimination is clearly on the grounds of their religious identity. “If they were Muslims, they would easily get the death allowance and the son quota jobs without much delay.”

 

This blog has been originally produced by ravadar – a blog series documenting the lives of religious minorities.

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