Collecting water holds back women in India

by Anagha Pathak, BBC Marathi

BBC/Mangesh Sonawane Sunita Burbade BBC/Mangesh Sonawane

Sunita Burbade spends five hours a day collecting drinking water for her family.

For millions of women in India, collecting drinking water is a backbreaking daily chore.

They endure scorching summers and freezing winters, carrying plastic or clay pots on their heads and buckets in their hands, walking miles every day to manage their household water reserves.

“Every day is a struggle. I’m so tired I collapse after it’s over,” said Sunita Boulevard from Trilingalwadi, a tribal village 180 km (110 miles) from Mumbai, India’s financial capital.

Every day, Boulevard travels four to five hours to and from the nearest reliable source of water, a dried-up lake, to fill the jars, which are polluted so he has to dig holes in the sides to allow the water to filter and seep naturally.

“For four to five months every year, nearby wells and water sources dry up, leaving women with no option but to fetch water from far away,” she says. Ironically, her village is one of the ones that receives the most rainfall in the region.

These daily tasks leave her with constant back and neck pain, fatigue and weakness.

The hardships of life mean she and other women in her village cannot access paid work.

“No one will hire me as a farm worker because I’m not allowed to come to work in the afternoon,” she says.

“If we want water, we have to sacrifice our livelihood. If we want to earn a wage, our families will continue to go thirsty.”

Getty Images Indian woman carries water on her headGetty Images

It is a physically exhausting job every day, which discourages women from entering the workforce.

according to 2023 Report According to the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF, 1.8 billion people worldwide collect drinking water from off-site water points, and in seven in 10 households, women and girls have the primary responsibility for water collection.

This is particularly true in India, where experts say the need for access to drinking water holds women back and stifles economic growth.

“Firstly, women are unable to take up paid work as they have to handle all the household chores. Secondly, even if they want to find work after completing their daily household chores, there are not enough paid jobs available for women in rural India,” says Professor Ashwini Deshpande, dean of the school of economics at Ashoka University in Delhi.

The value of women’s unpaid work in the Indian economy is enormous. Eco Wrap Report The study found that women’s total unpaid work contributes about 22.7 billion rupees ($276.8 million, £216.7 million) to the economy, equivalent to about 7.5% of India’s total GDP.

NGO International Development Organization Quote Indian women spend 150 million workdays each year collecting water.

Experts say that if women could devote this time to paid activities, it could help them become financially independent and boost the economy.

The Indian government says it is continually working to improve water infrastructure across the country. By January 2024, said About 74% of rural households had piped water supply.

The experience has been life-changing for people who previously had to fetch water from outside but now have piped water in their homes.

“When you open the tap, water comes out with force… it’s like a dream. I have been fetching water since I was five years old,” says Mangal Khadke, a married woman in her 30s who lives around 30 km from Burbade.

But there are still millions of people who do not have access to running water.

Getty Images People in Kolkata drink from a water tankGetty Images

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

About 700km from Tringalwadi, in Aakhi village in central India’s Amaravati district, village chief Indrayani Jawalkar spends much of her day searching for and fetching water.

“The summers here are so dry, so every day I wake up and in my head I think, ‘Where am I going to find water today?'” she says.

Indrayani has two jobs: one is to find and collect water for her family and the other is to organise water tankers for the village.

“Both jobs are getting harder every day,” she says.

Boulevardé says having running water remains a distant dream.

“[Women] “It starts when you’re a child, when someone hands you a little bucket and tells you to get as much water as you can carry, and then it becomes a lifelong commitment, and you keep fetching water until you die,” she says.

Boulevard remembers there wasn’t a single year he had to walk miles with a pot on his head.

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

She thinks hard and says she loves to sing, but her songs are also about water.

“Ladu nako bala mi panyala jate,” she sings for us.

It means, “Don’t cry, child, I’ll go and get some water.”

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