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The Water-Women connect: Why it matters

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When famous marine biologist Dr. Sylvia Earle said, ‘No water, no life. No blue, no green’, she was emphasizing a fact that we all are inherently aware of, but often forget in all aspects of our lives-the integral role of water in our lives. And yet, it is estimated that there are 164 million people in India who do not have access to safe drinking water. Reports indicate that in rural areas, 7% of the population do not have access to clean water. On average 40% of water is wasted across sectors, especially agriculture. Meanwhile, the annual per capita water availability has declined from 5,177m3 in 1951 to 1545m3 in 2011, and it is expected to fall to 814m3 by 2025.

These numbers highlight an ineffective water management strategy and ask the question, where are we going wrong and why? The answer clearly lies in who writes the policies and for whom they are written. One of the reasons why policies which aim to solve issues of water accessibility and management often fail is that their formulation and execution reside pre-dominantly with men.

According to a UNICEF report, women around the world spend on a daily basis a staggering 200 million hours collecting water. In India, this number can range from 20 minutes to more than an hour every day. This is no surprise, given the plethora of work that women do as mothers, wives, care-givers and as the largest providers of water in any community. Women and water have always been depicted together, from the time of hunter and gatherers, when women foraged for food and fetched water, to modern realities in which women walk miles for collecting water from its various sources.

It then seems counterintuitive that in matters of water management in India, women are an undermined entity.

Upon closer inspection of social and political structures, not only does this absence become apparent, but the consequent inefficiency of water management policies becomes more obvious.

On a daily basis, countless women not only fight long distances and the effects of climate change, but also a patriarchal society like India’s which constantly marginalizes supposedly feminine issues. Dichotomies that have been created through language ultimately also affect perspectives. By categorizing male and female into public and private respectively, issues that are perceived as being more domestic/ private in nature, such as effective water management are seen as secondary, if not irrelevant.

It is difficult to ignore the congregation of women, water and areas where water is used. In a predominantly agrarian economy such as ours, 78% of rural women workers are involved in agricultural practices. Nearly 90% of women who don’t ‘work’, are actually occupied by domestic duties and care giving, which includes drinking water collection, sanitation and healthcare. As these functions are not considered a part of the economy and are not remunerative for women, there are two effects. One, they do not form an integral part of policymaking, decision-making and programme implementation in the water sector. Two, because women are not paid for carrying out all these functions, financial crises have a much greater impact on them as well as on their households, as daily income decreases and affects acquirement of health care, education and credit.

In India, men wield a disproportionally greater amount of influence in matters of government and politics, which is evident, at the highest levels, with only  11.6% of Parliamentary seats held by women. Hence it is no surprise that the focus areas, perspectives and solutions addressing various challenges in the country ascribe to a male and patriarchal mindset.Any outlier, however important, is not given the attention and treatment it deserves. The water sector is a compelling example: women outnumber men as primary actors in water management at household, farm and community levels, yet they are vastly under-represented at every level of government and positions of power.

A lack of female perspective inadvertently results in choices catering to only half the demographic. With half of India’s population excluded from the decision-making process, policies are bound to be ineffective. For policies to be effective, inclusion of all those affected by the system is necessary, which includes women.

In order to fight gender inequality in water management, steps must be taken from the community level onwards. What becomes imperative then is the re-analyzing of social and political constructs around water resources.

The aim is to bring about a shift in water governance from a state-centric approach to a smaller, community-based approach, which gives enough space for conventionally less powerful stakeholders such as women.

However, simple inclusion is not enough, says Dr. Ravi Verma, Regional Director of the International Centre for Research on Women (ICRW), Mumbai. Dr. Verma, who has worked extensively on an array of issues, from reproductive health to child marriage to engaging men and boys for women empowerment, states that,

“So far the discourse on women and work is limited to care giving or unpaid care work. Time has come for us to begin examining the larger context within which women live and work that includes energy, infrastructure, and water management. We know these are gendered spaces but have little evidence to show how adverse they are to women and the marginalization they cause to women. We need more research and context specific programming.”

Dr. Verma stresses on the importance of gender sensitive research in order to gain further clarity on the roles and struggles of women in the water sector and devise concrete solutions to problems faced by women, as well as in water management.

While the importance of water for sustenance is evident, the deep connection between women and water must be highlighted, in the data that is collected, in the policies that are made and the method in which water is managed. Only then can we achieve an effective water management system, which is just, efficient, and sustainable.

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