How drinking water access is the key to empowering rural women

By providing tap water and a toilet in every home in an Indian village, the women found themselves utilising their spare time not to rest but to start a business, the managing trustee of Swades Foundation, Zarina Screwvala, writes

Zarina Screwvala
Updated: Apr 29, 2022 01:42:08 PM UTC
Ensuring access to clean drinking water in every household is one of the sure-shot ways to empower women, especially in rural communities. Image: Shutterstock

Access to water is as easy as turning on a tap for most of us, but it is still a dream for many rural families in India. More than 52 percent of rural households in India are awaiting the basic convenience of having water through a tap installed in their home.

This water crisis in the hinterland is real and constant, and the increasing dependence on groundwater only deepens the water crisis. Rural women and young girls are most impacted as they take multiple trips in a day to get water for their families. For many, the water source can be between two and five kilometres from their house, and they invest most of their time fetching it.

Providing clean drinking water with a tap in every home has a huge impact on a woman's dignity, health and livelihood. It allows girls to go to school instead of being burdened with the task of carrying water for their loved ones. We need to understand that families do this not from choice but from a dire need, without which they cannot survive. In the poorest of poor tribal homes, the distances to water are even further and often involve no roads, and steep climbs. We have often seen menfolk taking over the task of carrying water for their families to safeguard their womenfolk.

In this blog, I present a snapshot of how the water crisis in rural India is the hardest on women, creating hardships and perpetuating inequality.

Impact on health: Walking with heavy water-filled pots on their heads, often multiple times a day, causes joint pains, backaches and constant physical and mental fatigue in women. In summer, the searing heat adds to the issues.

For example, in the hilly terrain of Kakichakond, a small hamlet in Raigad, women walked two kilometres for their drinking water. They would often fall or faint because of the terrain and extreme exhaustion. We have seen that the women tend to further sacrifice for their men and children by drinking less water, leading to dehydration, abdominal pains, cramps, constipation, dry skin, and more.

Drinking contaminated water impacts the whole community. More than 37 million Indians are affected by waterborne diseases and 15 million children die of diarrhoea. Similarly, poor hygiene practices caused by water shortages can cause infection and disease, leading to long-term interference with nutrient absorption.

Social inequalities: To meet the household's need for water, daughters often miss school, sometimes even dropping out altogether, to assist their mothers in household duties, primarily carrying water. In many rural schools, the absence of a functional drinking water station and toilet with water availability forces young girls to drop out when they reach puberty. Almost 23 percent young girls drop out of school in Maharashtra on reaching puberty due to a lack of safe sanitation facilities, according to a report by Dasra.

Economic inequalities: In the early years of the foundation I work with, we gave a village clean tap water and a toilet in every home. I remember visiting shortly after, and a group of women came up to me and said that now that they had water and a toilet, they had so much spare time—the first thing they wanted to do was not to use the extra time to rest but to start their small businesses. And they did. Their amazing spirit struck me.

As per the Global Gender Gap Index 2020 by World Economic Forum, India slipped from 110 in 2006 to 145 in 2020 in female participation in the workforce. International Development Enterprises (IDE) estimated that Indian women spend 150 million workdays every year fetching water, equivalent to a national loss of income of Rs 10 billion. This impacts not just rural women but also the rural and national economy.

What is being done?

To relieve the women from this burden and strengthen their access to piped drinking water in rural India, the government launched the Jal Jeewan Mission in 2019. The Jal Shakti Ministry implements the scheme "Nal Se Jal" and "Har Ghar Jal" and aims to achieve its target by 2024. These schemes focus on taking a bottom-up approach and encourage communities to actively address their water issues with the support of stakeholders like gram panchayat, non-profits, and private players.

Women have a key role to play in these schemes. They are trained to monitor water quality and inspect village cleanliness and health of water supply systems. In addition, they are part of the Paani Samitis, where women and men have equal representation. The progress under the schemes has been optimistic and offers great hope. Since the scheme's launch, 4.08 crore rural homes have received tapped water connections.

Many non-profits, civil bodies, like-minded corporates, and the government administration have taken up the challenge of clean drinking water through a tap in every home. We have been working on this for over 20 years.

Some learnings

Make the community responsible, build a "can do" attitude and let women take the lead in village committees, including a water committee. This is a key learning. If the community is not empowered, the water scheme will fail. In Bhavshet Thakurwadi, a tribal hamlet in Sudhagad, they were initially shy and hesitant in expressing their needs. Through continuous interactions and PRA activities, the community expressed their need for water. We constructed the drinking water scheme with the community's contributions. All homes paid a nominal contribution and did ShramDaan (Voluntary labor) in the construction work. This led to the community taking ownership. Today, they run the water facility, maintain their resources, and ration water when needed. They ensure no water is wasted. We need to work with the community on the sustainability of water sources. Teach the community to conduct annual need assessments of water connections and ensure audit of existing water schemes.

Empower the womenfolk in the community
I believe that unleashing the knowledge and capacity of women helps us craft effective solutions that benefit all. "Women know how to manage poverty; they can also manage wealth," said Sir Faisal of BRAC Bangladesh, which I will never forget. In Angrekond village in Raigad, women understood the importance of water and recycled wastewater to maintain kitchen gardens in their houses. This has motivated neighbouring villages, and community members have followed the lead of women in Angrekond and are recycling wastewater and maintaining kitchen gardens in their backyards.

There should be continuous sharing of best practices in program design, community ownership, and implementation among various entities—governmental and non-governmental. But, most importantly, partners with rich experiences should also share their failures so that all can benefit.

Access to clean drinking water is a responsibility that needs to be shouldered by all stakeholders. To bring our rural communities out of water scarcity, the community members, non-profits, corporates, and the government have to continue their efforts tirelessly. Ensuring access to clean drinking water in every household is one of the sure-shot ways to empower women, especially in rural communities.

The writer is the co-founder of the Swades Foundation & works full time as its Managing Trustee & Director.

The thoughts and opinions shared here are of the author.

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