Powerful women who simply deal with it

Powerful women who simply deal with it

Meet Champa, who wants to see her small fruit shop flourish so she can take care of her grandchildren. Meet Sathi, who sweeps the streets clean and takes care of her children. Meet Jhorna, who manages a public toilet so she can repay her family and her community for their financial support when she needed surgery and follow-up treatment for ovarian cancer. Meet Putti, who earns her livelihood cleaning homes and toilets during the day, and selling pitha (a local snack) in a little shop in the evening.

In December last year, I visited our urban sanitation and hygiene programme in Bangladesh which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. With over 80% of septic tanks and pits still emptied manually, the programme focuses on pro-poor market-based solutions for faecal sludge management (FSM) services. The people who do this type of work are of a particular caste of Hinduism, socially believed to be lowest of all castes. And although rare, some of them are female.

When we visited several of the so-called 'sweeper' communities, we spoke with men and women about their jobs emptying and cleaning septic tanks and pits. As 55-year old Jhorna recalls, "I started out assisting my father in cleaning wells and latrines. I would be lowered into the well in a bucket, dig through the soil and send the sludge back in the bucket." Such manual labour is dangerous, and many women have lost family members in brutal accidents. As a result, some of them became the main breadwinner of the family, having other day jobs apart from cleaning pits part time.

To improve community health and environmental safety, SNV works towards standards setting and professionalization of sludge emptying and transportation. We have developed Occupational Health & Safety Standards (OHS) for septic tank and pit emptiers, making them aware of personal safety, the health impact and the roles and responsibilities of all parties involved. Through our programme, we also aim to generate entrepreneurial opportunities for many of these men and women - for instance by linking them to private organizations. Especially because there is limited alternative employment due to the transition to mechanized emptying. To ensure these changes are sustainable we integrate behavioural change communication into our work, which is supported by Mr Kazi Reazul Hoque, Chairman of the Human Rights Commission in Bangladesh. When I spoke with him during an FSM convention, he commented that "the mindset of people needs to be changed because emptiers should have the same rights as others. These rights should be brought under a legal framework, set up by the government - who can then also provide subsidy for proper education, food and water."

On the topic of personal health and safety, I asked whether it was possible to speak to some of the women in the sweeper communities. Something a bit unfamiliar to me, as I would normally simply have approached someone myself and asked for a conversation. There was some hesitation at first, probably because they did not understand why I wanted to talk to the women specifically, but it was fine. Off I went with my colleague Mahbuba (programme officer dubbing as translator) and a group of women from varying ages. Some of the men lingered around, waiting to see what this was all about. But as soon as I asked them point blank whether they wanted to participate in a group discussion on menstrual hygiene, well - they were out of there within seconds. Of course that caused lots of giggles and snorts in the room, which quickly established a connection between us.

We shared experiences and talked about whether or not menstruation makes it more difficult for them to perform their work. Regardless of the answer though, Sathi said "We need to work to take care of our families and simply deal with it." Most of the women are very poor, so they often cannot spend any of their hard earned money on sanitary products. In that case, they resort to pieces of cloth or other available materials. The ones that are able to spend a little will buy pads, but in general the material is quite expensive. When I asked the women what they would need most, some responded sanitary materials but most responded by saying they would appreciate information on menstruation and training in hygienic practices. Since SNV has developed an integrated rights-based approach at scale to improve safe menstrual hygiene management, I really hope this might be something we can offer these women as part of our programme in Bangladesh in the future. To address an issue that in a way can be easily solved, but more importantly to ensure that women feel confident and can maximize their economic potential - albeit within existing social constraints.

Hopefully, in a year or so from now, I can return to the communities I visited and talk to these powerful women again. About how their lives have developed, and if their circumstances have changed for the better. And maybe, just maybe I will come across a few men who feel comfortable enough to stay in the room. Not because it directly affects them, but to show understanding and compassion for their mothers, wives and daughters. To set an example and to #beboldforchange!