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There Was Always Water

Nandita Pradhan Bhatt, Program Manager, writes about how gender issues need to be considered when planning for water, a very scarce resource today

Phoolo. I met Phoolo in the metro station in Gurgaon on my way to work on the morning of 6th April. As I was preparing to make a frantic dash across the station, I heard a soft voice asking me for help to swipe a token. I turned to see a middle aged woman. Frail and thin, with her saree wrapped tightly around her, clutching onto a small plastic bag. I showed her how to slide the token over the sensor. Then, because I did not feel like leaving her, I walked with her to the escalator. She hesitated, so I reached out to hold her hand. As soon as I held her hand, she looked at me and started to cry. I held her close to me and let her cry.

Her shoulders shook with her quiet sobs. In between her sobs she tells me – “Mujhe maartae the… mujhe gaali dete the… khaanae ko bhi nahin dete the” (They beat me, abused me and didn’t give me food). She tells me it would have been better to die at home than come here. Confused, I ask her to start at the beginning. Phoolo tells me her story.

Phoolo says she is 35 years old (though she looks much older) and has two children whom she has left with her mother. She tells me she loves her village but there are many problems. The water sources are drying up, fields are barren and animals are dying. Now even the children are beginning to die. There is a lot of disease and sickness in her village. Her husband left for the big city several months ago in search of work and she has not heard from him since. She does not know where he went or if he is dead or alive. Desperate to save her children from the impending threat of illness and death, she agreed to leave for the big city when two ‘recruiters’ arrived in her village. She, and two other women.

That was two months ago. Since then, Phoolo has cried herself to sleep on an empty stomach every night and has never heard from the ‘recruiters’ again. And today, after having been beaten, abused and tortured, here she is, running away from the big city  in the same condition she had arrived, only this time, humiliated and heartbroken as well.

Water resources are depleting rapidly. This is a global concern. But the burden of this scarcity on men and women is different. Water scarcity is often a source of shame, humiliation and physical discomfort for women, especially during menstruation and child birth. In times of crisis, it is expected that men will migrate and women will have to travel longer distances in search of water. It is estimated that women spend upto 6 hours a day fetching water, 150 million work days per year, equivalent, on average, to a national loss of income of 10 billion. Yet, women are often found to be missing from conversations around decision making on the management of water.

It is said that the success of water projects increase 6 to 7 times when women are involved. The importance of involving both men and women in access to and management of water was first recognised at the global level at the United Nations Water Conference at Mar del Plata in 1977. This was further reiterated during the International Decade of Water and the International Conference on Water and the Environment in Dublin in January 1992.

Sahibganj district of Jharkhand faces not only acute shortage of water but the water of several blocks is contaminated with high levels of arsenic. Using this as an entry point, PRIA has been working in 94 villages of the district with a focus on community led planning for management of local water resources with the eventual goal of addressing the larger issue of community based water security by improving gender sensitive WATSAN governance systems. Women are at the forefront of the planning process.

Water security plans have been made in 6 gram panchayats. Sriram Chowki Santhali village is one of the three female headed gram panchayats among these. It is headed by Anita Devi. In this village, the intervention is led by an all-woman team made up of a Jal Sahiya (appointed by the government), PRIA’s own animator and Anita Devi. After being trained to test water, this team has gone ahead and trained the others in their village, particularly its women, to test the water sources in the village. Anita Devi has called several special gram sabhas on the issue of water to discuss the finding of the tests. When the water security plan was being made, this team ensured that a women’s sabha was first organised in order to include women’s perspectives in the plan.

Phoolo is from Odisha, which is experiencing drought. Before Phoolo left home, she would often picture happy days with her family when she returned – and there was always water.

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