What women want

Image credit: WaterAid/Prashanth Vishwanathan
Image credit: WaterAid/Prashanth Vishwanathan

As the world’s largest democracy is all geared for its biggest test - for voters to select their Members of Parliament and the Prime Minister, the top issues that dominate the electoral agenda at the national level have been increased jobs opportunities, controlling inflation, and reducing farmers’ distress. While these could be the top priorities for the rest of India, what dominates the agenda at the local level are every day issues that may seem mundane to many - water and sewage lines. From drought-hit regions to emerging colonies in expanding cities, what matters most to voters are basic provisions for everyday living.

While water did manage to find a little space in the election manifestos of the top two national parties, it is important that the commitments around access to adequate and safe drinking water made to the electorate be converted into action. Apprehensions do exist that they might be diluted because they are perceived to be female-oriented issues. But with women constituting almost half the share of total votes in the country, their mundane and everyday needs should be given equal significance as the top priorities are likely to get. 

In much of the world, and developing countries in particular, women and girls have been traditionally responsible for domestic water supply and related household chores. Men in any society, no matter how contemporary, have seldom been associated with water related tasks. While the truth remains that water is an important element of survival, another truth linked to it is the indispensable relation between women and water. So if water related tasks at home are expected to become women’s chores, the minimum that can be ensured to make life little convenient for her is access to a water source within home and safe and adequate drinking water for all members of the family.

Even though women are the ones who manage water related tasks at home right from the break of day to dawn, they seldom participate in decision making processes with regard to this resource. Contrary, men usually involve themselves in one time task related to water like deciding on the type of water source to be built, site selection, maintenance, and usage structure by the community, and keep themselves away from day to day labour intensive tasks.

Looking beyond water, women across many countries of the world, spend considerable time on other unpaid work like sanitation and hygiene, collecting fuel, washing, cooking, and care services for the dependents. They are also the world's principal food producers and providers and are assuming an increasing role in agriculture.  Women, on average, comprise 43 per cent of the agricultural labour force in developing countries and account for an estimated two-thirds of the world's 600 million poor livestock keepers . Nonetheless, their unpaid role in all these different tasks becomes a crucial factor for their disadvantaged position in the labour force.

Women at work, Trends 2016, ILOSubstantiating the above claim is a report released by Oxfam- an international human rights group- in January 2019, in which the ‘female face’ of women’s unpaid work in India was emphasised. The report shared that in India, the unpaid work done by women looking after their homes and children is worth 3.1% of the country’s GDP (Gross Domestic Product). Women spend 312 minutes per day in urban areas and 291 minutes in rural areas on such unpaid care work, it added. In comparison, men spend only 29 minutes in urban and 32 minutes in rural areas on unpaid care work. 

In Asia, women and girls spend 21 minutes on average in rural areas and 19 minutes in urban areas for one roundtrip to collect water (UNICEF, Aug 2016). In addition to the fetching time, carrying heavy loads of water over long distances several times a day leads to adverse impact on their physical health, generally causing neck and spinal injuries. Apart from heath risk, there are many cultural consequences that women face on account of being ‘water carriers’. One of the unfortunate fallout of water shortage on women can be witnessed in the drought-prone Denganmal village of Maharashtra where the practice of keeping water-wives has been a norm for many years. Men, in this village, practice polygamy of a surprising kind – they marry ‘extra’ wives solely for them to fetch water for the household, many times a day.

Since the past few years, building toilets under the Swachh Bharat Mission in a full-fledged mode, in the absence of alternate arrangement for access to water, has made the situation even more unfavourable. With toilet use being promoted using both reinforcement and coercive measures, in households lacking water availability within premises, women have the additional task of fetching water for sanitation purposes.

It has been long that women have been bearing a disproportionate burden of unpaid water-work in India and across the world and policy space is little gender sensitive. While complete equality between men and women is not happening anytime soon, policies that are most conducive to the attainment of substantive equality between women and men should be identified and drafted covering areas like access to water, sanitation and hygiene, health and nutritional security, and education. The objective should be to enable that women’s participation grow from manual workers to decision makers and from disproportionate and unrecognised work to more visible and paid tasks!

Nirma Bora is the Policy Research & Advocacy Officer at WaterAid India. She has worked extensively on issues related to climate change, sustainable agriculture and water resource management.


The female face of farming

Infographic source: UN Women - Women in the changing world of work


Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the policy or position of India Water Portal.

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