- Jesselina Rana
Water is deeply entwined with women’s lives and identities in South Asia, interacting with gender, caste, and class, and shaping water insecurity at the household level. Water, as a commodity and as a natural resource, intersects the lives of women in many places; relying on existing power structures and social hierarchies to determine access to and control of resources. Therefore, the practice of carrying water home, who does it and how they do it, is central to understanding the relationship between women with water.
The interlinking relationship between women and water begins from a small age. Gendered allocation of work in Nepal assigns care work or unpaid household labor as women’s forte, and this gender bias has benefited men at the expense of women. Due to this, in many households in South Asia, access to clean water remains a key concern only for women. This phenomenon is further exacerbated in rural areas. The time and effort women and young girls spend collecting water every day deeply impact their quality of life which has important implications for household food production and welfare.
A 2010 fact sheet from several UN agencies on the Right to Water indicates that women in developing countries across Asia walk an average of six kilometers per day to collect water. The distance and terrain they must cross extend the portion of their days that they must dedicate solely to water collection. Caste-based barriers surrounding access to water sources pertinent in many communities around the world serve as a further obstacle. Furthermore, climate change is exacerbating water scarcity around the globe, whose consequences are mostly felt by women. This has a large opportunity cost not just for women but also for society. Spending more time collecting water results in a direct compromise to other forms of social participation like education, community attainment, and the productive work opportunities outside household premises.
In many regards, Nepal has continued to make progress in gender empowerment from a policy to a grassroots level. For instance, the Nepali government pays careful attention to ensuring adequate representation to women by implementing gender quotas across all federal levels. The Gender Responsive Budgeting and Planning Directive has allowed for the creation of Gender and Social Inclusion (GESI) units in most ministries and line departments. But on the other hand, even with representation and quotas in policy-making bodies, women's right to access water for domestic (washing clothes) and other needs (cattle bathing, vegetable gardening) is viewed by policymakers as secondary compared to larger operational and infrastructural level water issues like canal design. Unless inclusive representation and educational interventions to dismantle caste, class, and gender hierarchies are treated as fundamental priorities, most water-related policies will fall short of benefiting those who are to be primarily uplifted by them.
The education sector can also contribute to more equitable water access for women across the various castes. These interventions should work to end caste-based restrictions to water source access while promoting values of shared household work between all genders. This would help younger generations unlearn negative cultural practices and shape an equitable future from a young age. Unfortunately, educational institutions in most parts of Nepal are struggling with a lack of access to water and sanitation facilities in their premises.
A report by UNDP and the National Planning Commission of Nepal suggests that 20 percent of schools in Nepal are yet to achieve full access to toilet and sanitation facilities. However, even within the 80 percent of schools with full sanitation facilities, reliable access to water to maintain sanitation facilities and toilets is a rarity. This has a particularly disproportionate impact on young girls during their menstrual cycle. The already existing menstrual taboo and stigma in the Nepalese society along with the lack of access to menstrual products and toilets in schools often force young girls to drop out of school and work within their households. Without access to formal education, in a system that favors the strict gendered household division of work, young girls are too often confined to unpaid and undivided household work. This forms a vicious cycle of gender disempowerment, which is shaped by several factors including the lack of access to water and sanitation.
Lack of access to water has a disparate impact on young girls and women. Women’s intersectional identity, intertwined with the burden of household duties, and disadvantages informal education, is shaped deeply by their access to water across all age levels. Unless water policies are designed with the needs and perspectives of women across all age groups, government initiatives on increasing access to water will continue falling short of positively impacting the intended beneficiaries.
Jesselina Rana is a human rights lawyer, social entrepreneur and a feminist activist.