Helping India’s Most Marginalized to Find Their Voices

In her native country of India, Kamini Prakash, 1994 Ph.D. in German Studies alumna, advocates for people who lack one of life’s most basic necessities: access to clean, safe bathrooms.

Much of India lacks toilets, running water, and sewer systems, and about 550 million of the country’s nearly 1.3 billion people relieve themselves in alleys and streets, alongside rivers, and elsewhere, Prakash said.

Beyond the sanitation, health and safety risks, this carries humiliation and social stigma. That’s what Prakash really wants to address. India’s prime minister launched the Clean India Mission in 2014, seeking to provide access to toilets for all by 2019, among other goals. But “progress is slow,” Prakash said, “because we are not addressing crucial issues of stigma and discrimination.” 

The mission has still excluded some of India’s most stigmatized groups. Prakash works in New Delhi as a technical officer with the Water Supply and Sanitation Collaborative Council (WSSCC), a United Nations organization that spotlights hygiene and sanitation crises among the world’s most vulnerable people.

To support Clean India, the council reaches out to groups that have been traditionally ignored, including girls and women, the elderly, people with disabilities, transgender people, and sanitation workers, to “give socially excluded people a chance to have their needs and challenges represented,” Prakash said. 

What I saw and heard shocked and moved me.

The WSSCC uses sanitation as an entry point to engage them, she said. The idea is not to speak for them, but to help them directly interact with government officials, media, and the private sector, and speak for themselves.

“We have found this to be a powerful way to enhance the voice and agency of these groups and individuals and to make them visible in the eyes of policy makers,” Prakash said.

As part of her job, Prakash might visit a school for deaf girls to learn about their obstacles to personal hygiene. She explained that girls who’ve passed puberty often skip school during their menstrual periods — a taboo subject in India. It’s safer to stay home because the schools lack separate, girls-only washrooms. Consequently, girls fall behind in their educations, making it harder for them to improve their lives.

Prakash also visited New Delhi’s fetid, smoldering landfill, Bhalaswa. Some 400,000 people live atop the 40-acre garbage mountain, digging for valuables, and sorting materials to sell to recyclers.

“What I saw and heard shocked and moved me,” she said. “These people, mostly from India’s lowest caste, live and work in the most hazardous conditions with little protective equipment.”

Prakash uses the stories she gathers to help inform the scores of fellow frontline social workers she and her colleagues train.

She sees glimmers of hope. Last year, for the first time, a sanitation worker took the stage alongside seven South Asian foreign ministers at a multinational meeting. He spoke eloquently of the hardships and health threats of his work, she said. The ministers agreed to develop rules “to ensure the dignity, adequate remuneration, occupational health and safety of sanitation workers, including those working in the informal sector.”

One voice moved beyond the margins.

Originally published by MSU Alumni Magazine