Thinking Water Thinking Women

By: Dr Saraswati Raju
Several scholars have suggested that there is intrinsic affinity between women and nature and both are subordinated by patriarchal processes, women by men and nature by culture – an ideological position known as ecofeminism. Although powerfully argued, such formulation inadequately addresses division of gendered labour within households that assign tasks such as collection of water, free fodder, fuel etc. sourced essentially from natural environs by women. It is the survival dependence on nature added by persistent social conditioning that nurture and care is what they embody, make women care for nature more. Water provides a good case for suggesting an alternative way of looking at the issue in a pragmatic manner.
Gender Justice

Scholars have argued that women have affinity with nature because both are subjected to domination, women by men and nature by culture. Nature in their imagination is equated with femininity and culture with masculinity. The proponents of this ideology contend that cultural artefacts have destroyed nature through destructive technologies of modern patriarchal structures and controls. Men have likewise been instrumental in subordinating women.

The proposed synonymy between women and nature also comes from the fact that women have the power of procreation through child bearing so does the nature which regenerates. In framing the argument thus, these scholars have brought ecology and feminist ideologies together, a strand of thinking called ecofeminism, which emerged in the late 1970s.  Although the term was coined in France in 1974 by Françoise d’Eaubonne, Simone de Beauvoir, the famous feminist scholar had pointed it out as far back as in 1949 about how men treat men and women similarly as the ‘other’ – a process which is called ‘othering’. In the Indian context, it is Vandana Shiva who has drawn attention to women’s marginalisation and ecological destruction under historical and conceptual trajectory of development which is largely guided by western models.

Scholarly work on ecofeminism has been extremely influential internationally. However, it has its share of criticism. One of the strongest arguments against ecofeminism is that it essentialises women and puts all women in one undifferentiated category ignoring the fact that women have multiple memberships. They are women, but they also belong to different castes, class, region and ethnicity. As such their interest in natures’ care or protection may actually vary according to their position along such axes. Poor African women, for instance may use wood to brew country liquor; women may prefer to leave grass cover intact rather than converting it into playgrounds because that would ease their burden of collecting free fodder for animals. That is to say, women’s so-called ‘feminine’ qualities of care and nurturing do not automatically translate into their closeness to nature, but is reflective of their practical considerations which emanate from the gender divisions of work within the households.

Let us take the example of water collection, a task by and large undertaken by women. In a study of 490 households in seven Indian villages by Dr Asthana in 1997, it was found that proportion of women in the age above 15 years determined the choice of safe source of drinking water. This was because almost 79 per cent of this water was hauled by women. Thus, a household with a higher proportion of women among its members had a higher capability of hauling water from longer distance. Not surprisingly, the proportion of adult men in the household had no effect.

Another study from Gujarat points out how despite improved drinking water situation following state-installed scheme, water collection continued to remain a time consuming process in the State. Village women spent on an average of three hours per day fetching whereas the family as a whole spent almost four hours for the same – the time allocated by daughters was 83 minutes, by sons 12 minutes and by husbands 15 minutes. It is clear that water collection and management is clearly a responsibility of women. It is therefore not surprising that they would be relatively more concerned about the dwindling sources of domestic water than men.

Forging an organic connection between nature and women has an inadvertent outcome – some issues become women’s issues and are either side-lined in the planning process or are seen as the exclusive domain of women without a proper understanding of entrenched power asymmetries between men and women. A member of the Planning Commission, India has once commented that if men were to be responsible for domestic water management, all villages would have had water taps long ago!

The years 1981-1990 were celebrated as the International Drinking Water Supply and Sanitation Decade and consultations were held in New Delhi in 1990. Discussions on gender issues included a clear call for an increase in women’s participation in decision-making and management of water resources. Right to water and sanitation and ‘gender mainstreaming’, the process of assessing implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies or programmes in water related issues are well set, at least in principle. And yet while women bear the disproportionate burden of collecting and preserving water, their share in planning and decision-making continues to be minimal. The non-state initiatives by actors of civil societies, activists and NGOs are better placed in this regard, but water is an essential commodity linked with livelihood issues and it has a legitimate claim for societal ownership at large beyond women.

In fact, the entire issue lacks a comprehensive understanding. For example, transport is an integral part of water management and yet as the SEWA (an NGO) experiences show, despite overall good transport facilities in rural Gujarat, women have been transport-deprived in carrying water.

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