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From clearing excrement to New York modelling

4 July 08 11:57 GMT

By Salim Rizvi, New York

Walking down the catwalk in front of the great and the good in New York is a far cry from using your hands to clean up human excrement for a living.

But this week a group of such women - known in India as scavengers - have been doing just that. They have been attending a United Nations conference here and doing some modelling at the same time.

In all, 36 scavengers from India have been invited by the UN to attend a conference to mark the UN's International Year of Sanitation.

The women were brought up from early childhood for the demeaning work.

Scavengers are invariably from the lower-caste, "untouchable" (Dalit) community. They carry the human excrement in pots on their heads. They can also be found clearing rubbish from the streets and open drains outside homes.

'Humilitation'

Usha Chomar is one of these women. Walking along the corridors of the UN headquarters, she was ecstatic by the respect and honour showered on her by dignitaries and the movers and shakers of the world.

Thirty-year-old Chomar gave up scavenging in 2003. She says she finally feels like a human being. "I have always done the work of scavenging and have faced humiliation all my life.

"So I had never imagined that I would ever have been honoured like this. I am very happy at last to be treated like a normal person."

The women got the opportunity to hit the catwalk during a fashion show called Mission Sanitation where they appeared alongside top models from India and other countries. Some of the designer clothes worn by the models were embroidered by the women.

The ceremony was especially poignant for Usha Chomar, because she was unofficially crowned as princess of sanitation workers.

Among the various organisations taking part in the activities was the India non-governmental organisation, Sulabh International, which was invited by the UN to work with other groups around the world in the struggle to provide better sanitation.

"This is the dream coming true of Indian independence hero Gandhiji (Mahatma Gandhi)," said Bindeshwar Pathak, the head of Sulabh International.

"In India scavengers have been looked down upon for centuries. But those who have abandoned that work are... being treated with respect which they deserve. I am over the moon with happiness."

Huge task

Usha Chomar said that she hoped that other disadvantaged women could derive inspiration from her story. "I tell all scavenging women that it is not impossible for them to change their lives and command just as much respect as any other human being."

Official statistics in India say that there are still around 340,000 scavengers working in villages and small towns.

The UN aims to reduce by half the number of people without basic sanitation by 2015.

But in India alone they face a huge task.

It's estimated that around 700 million Indians do not have access to safe and hygienic toilets.

Experts say that scavenging in India is most prevalent in the states of Uttar Pradesh, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat.

They warn that because they work in such nasty conditions, many suffer from acute health problems. They say that the stench that goes with the job forces many scavengers to hold their breath for long periods of time, which in turn causes respiratory problems.

The Indian government banned manual scavenging in 1993, but the law is not widely implemented.

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