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Thursday, 24 January 2002  
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Government - Gazette

Sunday Observer

Budusarana On-line Edition

Gender and domestic water management

by Vijitha Fernando

Culture and tradition still stand in the way of women's participation in water management. In most rural areas women continue their role as fetchers and carriers of water. Their voice in water management is only within the four walls of their homes where this often scarce resource and its use leave them little time for other activities.

But things are changing. In a research study comprising a series of workshops to introduce a gender approach to water management, rural women brought in a number of ideas to improve the quality of water, save time in fetching water and more importantly, the siting of water points by the state and other agencies in their villages.

The project was launched by the NGO Consortium Water and Sanitation Decade Services on the invitation of the Centre for Society and Religion (CSR).

Under the board theme of gender awareness the project aimed at strengthening the capacity of girls and women, identifying strengths and ways of minimising weaknesses.

The women were really vocal about a standpipe located by the roadside without consulting them. The women got together and refused to use it as across the road was a primary school and as the children leave the school they run across the road to the tap.

The mothers were scared that on that busy road the carelessly rushing children could be knocked down by vehicles that rushed past...they managed to get the site changed," says Venetia Gamage, Executive Director of the Decade Service, one of the organisers of the project.

Unsafe water was a major problem which the women brought up at the workshops. Several ways of improving the quality of water and keeping water uncontaminated in the home were suggested and discussed.

The women were not alone. Every workshop had its quota of men. The women predominated, especially as there were many women who were single parents and headed their families, in the absence of men who had either deserted the families or were killed in the ongoing conflict in the North and East.

"There are also a number of families where the women have to shoulder the problems alone as their husbands are at the war front and come home only periodically," says S. M. Abeyratne who coordinated the workshops.

The workshops were welcomed by the women as it is not always that they are consulted by those who provide them water, government or other agencies.

Here was a chance for them to show that they were not going to be only fetchers and carriers always. In the three selected areas in the dry zone where water is scarce, there were instances when women had to walk a couple of kilometres to a water source. The men also fetched water, but only for agriculture or for the animals they reared.

"Water for household activities - cooking, washing children and pets, home gardens and for income generating activities is the woman's responsibility. In areas where water is not easy to come by, women have the sole responsibility for water for cultural and religious activities as well.

The work involves storing, freeing water from pollution, cleanliness of the surroundings to avoid contamination ...all this means that the women are disadvantaged and this came out strongly in the workshops," adds Abeyratne.

Sujatha Wijetilleke, Programme Officer of the Swedish International Development Agency, which funded the workshops says that since women's reproductive role is linked to water, women do not participate in decision making or are taken into any dialogue or discussion. "Many community water schemes have failed due to this," she adds.

In its efforts to involve the women more the project enlisted 10 women and 10 men from each village to carry out a preliminary survey of the area, discussing with ten households each the details of water use, water management, water quality, the recurrence of water borne or water related diseases, and analysed these at the workshops.

In the dry zone areas of Mahiyangana, Hambantota and Moneragala where the workshops were held problems with water management seemed all consuming. Scarcity of water, distances to fetch water were important problems but they were often superseded by the lack of time, women were able to spend on other, equally important, activities.

"When the rains are delayed most of our time is spent in fetching and storing water away from animals and children....we have to cope with lack of space in our small homes...storing is a real problem which means that we increase our trips to the stream or canal..."was the verdict of many women at the workshop.

Rainwater, harvesting which is in its infancy in Sri Lanka was one suggestion which came from the Rainwater Harvesting Forum (RWHF) an NGO with links to the Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) in Sri Lanka.

"In the rural areas of the country, in the dry zone, in high elevations and where the ground water is saline, rain water is the most feasible solution," says Thanuka Ariyananda, Director of RWHF.

RWHF has experimented with a number of storage options both above and underground built about six thousand tanks in the dry zone and has worked out credit schemes to assist women to meet the initial costs. "Rainwater assures the use of a supply most parts of the year, saves time in collection, has economic value in its use for home gardens and other home based economic enterprises, it means more water and better sanitation," says Ariyananda.

The workshops were a rallying point for the women of these far flung rural villages, a forum to air their views, perhaps for the first time in their lives and an expression of hope that they too will be able to enjoy this truly abundant gift of nature which is enjoyed by the majority of Sri Lankans.

It is interesting that as the workshops progressed women themselves brought in other issues - violence against and abuse of women, legal literacy, the role of the police in minimising violence and the rights of women and girls.

The research has now been collated into a publication by the Centre for Society and Religion and includes in addition to the research study in instructive features on Water Policy by Engineer A. H. Jayaweera, Assistant General Manager of the Water Supply and Drainage Board, Tanuja Ariyananda, on rainwater harvesting options and Sujatha Wijetilleke formerly of the Swedish International Development Authority on Gender and Water Management.

Crescat Development Ltd.

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