USHA Chaumar was seven years old when she began collecting human excrement with her mother in the northern Indian state of Rajasthan.
By the age of 10, she had married and, with her mother-in-law, continued going from house to house performing this demeaning task.
“They used to call me Bhangi (part of the lowest of Indian castes) and treat us badly,” says Chaumar, now 33.
She was one of the country’s estimated 700000 so-called human scavengers on the lowest rung of the social hierarchy, who for centuries have had the wretched task of cleaning toilets and collecting human excrement.
Many Indians today still treat the waste collectors as “untouchables” and don’t let them approach their villages, schools or temples or come into contact with their food and drinking water.
“If I was thirsty, they would give me water but would avoid touching me,” says Chaumar.
Five years ago, her scavenging days ended when she joined the Sulabh International Social Service Organisation, a non-profit group working to improve sanitation in India and the conditions for this marginalised segment of society.