18th March 2020
This year’s Padma Shri award, the country’s fourth-highest civilian award, was awarded to Usha Chaumar. A former manual scavenger, her journey has inspired thousands of women across India.
Usha started work as a manual scavenger at the young age of seven, made to accompany her mother in order to be inducted into the family profession as early as possible. Never given the opportunity to attend school, Usha was married off by the age of 10. Her mother-in-law was a manual scavenger as well, and they could barely make ends meet. “The families sometimes used to give away their leftover food to us. We did not have money to buy clothes. We wore their hand-me-downs and discarded apparel”, says Usha in conversation with The Better India.
In 2003, Usha’s life changed. Dr Bindeshwar Pathak from Sulabh International, a social service organisation, visited Usha’s village and offered Usha and her counterparts the opportunity to engage in different work. Sulabh set up the NGO ‘Nai Disha’, and provided the erstwhile manual scavengers with training to enhance their skills. After overcoming her own personal insecurities and joining the NGO, Usha began to encourage other women to give up manual scavenging. She and her colleagues at Sulabh found that the biggest obstacle for women attempting to escape this life, was the lack of proper sanitation in the village. By advocating to build toilets in each of the village homes, Sulabh was able to eliminate the need for manual scavenging itself.
Today, Usha works as the President of Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, and has received the award in honour of her exceptional service in social work. She has worked tirelessly to elevate women by emboldening them to become financially independent. Speaking to SheThePeople, Usha says “Most women are dependent on their husbands for money. I feel that women are so talented that they can work, earn for themselves and be financially independent”.
Usha highlights the important role parents play in ensuring the safety of their daughters. If women are made to feel safe, they will be able to accomplish much more. “I feel parents should teach their sons to perceive all girls as their sisters. They should be taught to respect them and give them the courage to step out of their homes without any fear”, she tells SheThePeople. In addition to her outstanding social work, Usha also now raises awareness against manual scavenging.
Today, Usha’s incredible life story has inspired hundreds of women to leave manual scavenging. “I want to eradicate manual scavenging entirely from our social fabric. Women are not meant for staying at home, cleaning dirt and taking care of children. I want every woman to be independent through dignified jobs. That is how we will build a better society, free of untouchability”, says Usha.