Inclusive Development in India: USAID Partners with Local Transgender Community on WASH
Challenge 1: All over the world, including in India, transgender individuals are targets of discrimination and often lack legal recognition of their gender identity and access to essential services such as education, employment, as well as safe and stigma-free health care.
Challenge 2: In India, stress on water and sanitation services is growing, with more than 60 percent of India’s population currently living in urban areas and a rapidly increasing urban population.
Challenge 3: Sanitation workers and urban poor communities face the most severe consequences of poor sanitation. Less than fifty percent of India’s urban population has access to safe sanitation and sewage treatment services, and virtually no urban communities have a reliable, clean water supply.
To address these challenges, in India, USAID’s water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) programs increase access to safe water and sanitation, improve public sanitation services, train skilled professionals on septage management, and increase access to safe drinking water and sanitation services for India’s poor and underserved communities. Ultimately, this work results in improved livelihoods and better health for urban communities.
Throughout its work in WASH and other sectors, USAID values and promotes inclusion. USAID India promotes community-managed sanitation infrastructure, which fosters both ownership and sustainability. Engaging populations in vulnerable situations through livelihood opportunities within the sanitation sector is crucial for their empowerment and progress. USAID promotes the rights and inclusion of marginalized and underrepresented populations in the development process, including indigenous and tribal peoples, LGBTQI+ people, women and girls, scheduled castes, persons with disabilities, and youth.
For example, in 2021, USAID partnered with India’s WASH Institute, the Odisha state government, and the Odisha Water Academy to provide skills training for local self help groups formed in the community to address local issues in more than 1,000 cities and towns to learn how to operate and manage fecal sludge treatment plants. Importantly, the program targeted youth, women, and transgender individuals.
The transgender groups were considered during the COVID-19 lockdowns given many transgender individuals had lost their earnings from working at bus stands and railway stations as travel in the country was curbed. In August 2021, USAID trained more than 30 members of the “Bahuchara Mata Transgender Self Help Group” to develop their leadership skills and technical skills in fecal sludge treatment, disposal of treated wastewater, reuse of sludge for agriculture, and monitoring the quantity and quality of effluent. Thanks to the training, the State Government of Odisha deployed the team to operate the Pratapnagari Water Treatment Plant of the Water Corporation of Odisha (WATCO) in Cuttack.
The operation and management of fecal sludge treatment plants by the self help groups supporting transgender individuals was a watershed moment. These efforts not only empowered a population that routinely encounters socio-economic exclusion, they also helped created a template for strengthened approaches to sanitation elsewhere in the country.
These efforts boosted the confidence and dignity of the group who are now looked upon more highly as role models in their community. Thanushree, a training graduate and head of the self help group, said that members stopped begging in public places during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to lockdowns. The training helped participants to get jobs and earn a monthly salary of approximately 14,000 to 15,000 INR ($177-$189). “We use this as an opportunity to educate ourselves and move on to better things,” shared Thanushree. Additionally, because the training program imparts knowledge about government benefits, some members of the group were able to get government-issued cards allowing them access to free and subsidized food for low-income citizens.
Notably, the engagement of transgender people in the operation and maintenance of fecal sludge treatment plants became a country-wide best practice when the Bahuchara Mata Transgender Self-Help Group received the ISC — FICCI Sanitation Award 2021 for its outstanding work in fecal sludge management.
Importantly, this initiative provides a model for expansion, and is inspiring other towns to adopt similar methods. As of June 2022, the state of Odisha has established 104 fecal sludge treatment plants, with more than 32,000 existing self help groups for youth, LGBTQI+ persons, and others, across 111 towns and cities, community engagement for operation and maintenance of sanitation facilities holds enormous potential.
Expressing a strong commitment to promoting a world in which all people are treated with respect and dignity, the Director of USAID/India’s General Development Office said, “Transgender individuals and other gender minorities exist in every society and culture around the world, and throughout history, and their accomplishments and contributions are wide ranging and impressive. Despite facing unique challenges and adversity on the basis of personal identity and expression, it is heartening to see transgender people and communities coming forward on this WASH initiative.”
USAID has supported WASH programs in India for decades, beginning in the 1990s and continuing today. For example, USAID supported the Government of India to achieve its goal of becoming open defecation-free by 2019 by helping to improve sanitation services throughout the country. In 2020, as a result of USAID’s joint work with the Government of India, more than 573,000 people gained access to sustainable basic sanitation services, which was even more critical amidst the COVID-19 pandemic, which exacerbated existing challenges.
To advance locally-led development initiatives, USAID supports the Government of India’s flagship programs, Swachh Bharat Urban Mission, Atal Mission for Rejuvenation and Urban Transformation, and Jal Jeevan, to improve the provision of safe water services and move the country toward sustainable sanitation standards. USAID’s work with the Government of India has also helped leverage the strengths of the private sector, bringing in their expertise and resources to achieve improved quality assurance, governance, finance (approximately 4 million USD in 2020), operations and maintenance of essential services. This support has been critical as India moves beyond ensuring basic sanitation to providing sustainable and holistic household access to clean drinking water and sanitation, and addressing water pollution.