COVID Concerns To Sexual Harassment: The Value Of Water For India’s Most Marginalised Women

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March 22 is observed as World Water Day across the globe, as people reflect on the value of water in their lives, and prepare strategies for water to be accessible to one and all. The water crisis in India has been growing at a steady rate, and it’s days like these that make us keenly aware of it. The fortunate among us have enough and more water to leave taps running, but 76 million Indians have no access to a safe source of water. That’s a little under Germany’s total population!

It’s important to note, though, that the water crisis hits some people harder than others, and are compounded by other existing inequalities, such as caste, gender, and class. Our Program Officer Samiksha Jha investigated these with the help of members of communities that the Martha Farrell Foundation works with. And here’s what we found.

Not many of us would have easily made the connections, but a 27-year-old woman (who wished not to be named) from the Bawariya community in Haryana told us that violence and access to water are linked. She says:

“पानी की कमी और हिंसा का होना काफ़ी जुड़ा हुआ है क्योंकि पानी की कमी के कारण हम अपने घरों के शौच नहीं जाते। हमें खुले में जाना पड़ता और वहाँ हम किसी न किसी तरह के हिंसा के शिकार बनते हैं। कभी हम पे पत्थर फेंके जाते तो कभी लड़के हमारी वीडियो बनाते हैं।”

These are by no means isolated incidents. In order to meet any water needs, Bawariya women from the Manana basti (Haryana) must venture into places where harassment by upper caste men is routine. Another woman from the same area said:

“पानी हमें मजबूर करती है और इस मजबूरी का फायदा खेतों में रह रहे मजदूर उठाते हैं। हम जब भी खेतों में पानी लेने जाते तब हमारा मज़ाक उड़ाया जाता है, हमें आपत्तिजनक ढंग से छुआ जाता हैं।”

123kms from Manana, domestic workers in Gurgaon’s Harijan Basti have their own observations about the water crisis (and for whom it actually constitutes a crisis!). Basanti, one of the women currently working with Martha Farrell Foundation to build a Women’s Resource and Support Centre, says:

“मुझे समझ नहीं आता पानी की कमी असल में है या नहीं, क्योंकि जहाँ मैं काम करने जाती हूँ वहाँ तो कोई दिक्कत नहीं रहती है पर हमारी बस्ती में तो पानी का हिसाब-किताब अलग है। कोरोना के समय जब बार -बार हाथ धोने को कहा जा रहा था तो हमें लग रहा था कि हमारा मज़ाक उड़ाया जा रहा है।”

COVID-19 has highlighted the star divide between those who have water for wash their hands for the stipulated 20 seconds and those who don’t. Imagine being put in a situation like Basanti’s.

Stories like these exist across India and we need to pay attention to them not just on World Water Day, but on every single day when the lack of water contributes to poor menstrual hygiene, open defecation, epidemics of curable diseases, compromised safety, and much more.

Speaking to Samiksha, Aaliya, a young woman attached to MFF’s Kadam Badhate Chalo program, sums it all up, saying:

“पानी के महत्व को हम तब ही समझते है जब उसकी कमी होती है। जल ही जीवन है ये कहना बस काफ़ी नहीं है, जल ही जीवन क्यों है हमें ये सोचने की ज़रूरत है ।”

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