How water fetching is holding back Indian women

Via Anagha Pathak, BBC Marathi


Sunita Bhurbade spends up to five hours a day fetching drinking water for her family

Fetching drinking water is a tiring daily chore for millions of women in India.

Even when they are not enduring the hot summer months or the cold winters, they still have to walk miles every day, carrying plastic or earthenware pots on their heads and buckets in their hands to manage their family’s water supply.

“It is a daily struggle. I am so tired that I collapse when I finish my work,” said Sunita Bhurbade from Tringalwadi, a tribal village 180km (112 miles) from India’s financial hub Mumbai.

Ms Bhurbade spends four to five hours a day travelling from her nearest reliable water source – a dry lake – to refill her tank. The water is dirty and she has to dig holes in the side so the water can filter through and seep in.

“For four to five months every year, women have no choice but to fetch water from afar because the wells and nearby water sources dry up,” she said. Ironically, her village experiences some of the heaviest rains in the region.

Because of this daily work, she often complained of back pain, neck pain, fatigue and weakness.

The daily harshness also prevents her and other women in the village from pursuing paid work.

“No one wanted to hire me even as a farm worker because they wouldn’t let me come to work in the afternoon,” she said.

“If I go looking for water, I have to sacrifice my livelihood. If I try to earn money, my family will be thirsty.”

Getty Images A woman in India carries water on her headbeautiful pictures

It’s physically grueling work every day – and it prevents women from getting jobs.

Based on 2023 report According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and Unicef, 1.8 billion people worldwide get their drinking water from off-site sources and in 7 out of 10 households, women and girls are primarily responsible for water collection.

This is especially true in India, where experts say the need to ensure access to drinking water is holding women back and hindering economic growth.

“First, women cannot take up paid work because they have to do all the household chores, and second, even if they want to look for work after finishing their daily chores, there are not enough paid jobs for women in rural India,” said Professor Ashwini Deshpande, head of the department of economics at Ashoka University in Delhi.

The value of women’s unpaid labor in the Indian economy is enormous. India’s largest commercial bank is the State Bank of India (SBI). Ecowrap Report indicates that the total contribution of women’s unpaid work to the economy is about 22.7 billion rupees ($276.8 million; £216.7 million), nearly 7.5% of India’s total GDP.

Non-governmental organizations International development organizations estimate Indian women spend 150 million working days each year fetching water.

Experts say that if women can spend this time on paid activities, they can become financially independent and also boost the economy.

The Indian government says it is making continuous efforts to improve water infrastructure across the country. By January 2024, It says has provided tap water to nearly 74% of rural households.

For those who previously had to fetch water outside but now have tap water at home, the experience has been life-changing.

“I turned on the tap, the water gushed out… it was like a dream. I have been fetching water since I was five years old,” said Mangal Khadke, a married man in his 30s who lives about 30km from Ms Bhurbade.

But there are still millions of people without access to running water.

Getty Images People drink water from tanks in Kolkatabeautiful pictures

Access to clean drinking water is a problem in both rural and urban India.

About 700km from Tringalwadi, in Aaki village in Amaravati district, central India, village head Indrayani Javarkar spends most of her day searching for and fetching water.

“The summers here are so dry that every day when I wake up I think: where can I find water today?” she said.

Indrayani has two jobs: first, to find and fetch water for her family, and second, to arrange for water tankers to be delivered to her village.

“Both tasks are getting harder,” she said.

Access to tap water remains a distant dream, Ms. Bhurbade said.

“[Women] “It starts when they’re children. Someone gives them a little bucket and says, take what you can carry. And then it’s a lifelong obligation – until she dies, she still has to go get water,” she said.

Mrs. Bhurbade cannot remember a year when she did not have to walk miles with a pot on her head.

We asked her what she would do if she didn’t have to fetch water and had free time.

She thought carefully and said that she liked to sing. But her song was also about water.

“Radu nako bala mi panyala jate,” she sang to us.

Meaning: “Don’t cry, baby, I’m going to get some water.”


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