Indian women as environmental change agents in the country’s water crisis and sustainability efforts

“Change” refers to any deviation from accepted ways of life or established lives. Social change is the change in society at large. Robert Morisson MacIver defines society as a “web of social relationships” (1914). He suggests that “a society has no life but the life of its members, no ends that are not their ends, and no fulfillment beyond theirs” (MacIver, 1914, p.58). Therefore, any change that occurs or has occurred in these social relationships among individuals in a society is social change. Another essential feature of a society is that “it is a process not a product” (Nazhath, 2015, p. 46). Hence, it is obvious to assert that since processes are ongoing there would inevitably be change in the ways of living and being in a society. A society is always change-driven and dynamic. It is then also not far-fetched to say that any society that devalues its citizens gives rise to an entropic spiraling to isolation where power differentials create a skewed society (where experiences and expertise of some individuals are valued over those of others). Such is the case with women in India where despite of their integral and unique position in the society their perspectives are often unconsidered when enacting and considering geopolitical issues. In this piece, I propose that Indian women, particularly rural Indian women, are central to creating a sustainable world as they are central to a family, a community, and the society. Women in India are considered their family’s provider for an increasingly valuable life-source: water. Women in Indian rural households oversee the gathering of water every day for use in their homes and on their lands. A day’s supply of water can amount to multiple trips to local well for women. While rainfall has remained consistent, India has overused its water, forcing its residents to search beyond their homes for this precious source of life support. Indian rural women must hence travel longer distances and for hours to find new sources of water, and this affect their daily lives.

The urban women in India are playing an agentic role in science and engineering fields. They are doing so by actively taking on roles that promote conservation, combat climate change, protect biodiversity and vital ecosystems, secure water access, or reduce indoor air pollution, and they are developing and effecting innovative solutions to critical environmental problems. Although women are represented in the Indian national parliament and in the board of policymakers their percentages in leadership positions is extremely low. For example, In India, women have a share of 10 percent and 11 percent respectively in ministerial positions and the national parliament (United Nations Report, 2012). Hence, despite of their dedication to environmental issues, the depth of experiences and skills they have is rarely acknowledged and considered sincerely as the Indian government makes policies that impact women (both urban and rural) directly. To a certain extent the urban woman can still voice her concerns and sometimes be heard as well. However, the voices of the rural women in India are not even considered as reasonable and knowledgeable voices and the burden on their shoulders of family and everyday life is too intense to even think about voicing their opinions. Studies show it is rural women who frequently spend half their days trekking long distances to collect water and fuelwood, which in conflict settings, increases their vulnerability to sexual and gender-based violence, and, in all settings, reduces the amount of time for education, employment, childcare, and other more economically productive activities change (The Future of Water documentary, 2007). It is the rural women who represent the majority of the world’s small-holder farmers and who face the disproportionate burden of food insecurity. They help raise livestock and young animals, where part of collected water is used as well. Indian women participate in agricultural activities such as plowing and weeding, directing just as much work into farming as men. Women may try to earn income through small work to support their families, if they are lucky to find the extra time. However, the majority of Indian women do not have the time away from gathering water to further support their families in this way. Rural women clearly have a stake in the future of the environment.

Although the purpose of this piece is to highlight the power of women in tackling the water crisis in India, female infanticide is an issue that directly impacts the gender representation in India and hence also influences if there are any women left at all to tackle the issue of water scarcity. Until a few years back, India had the highest rate of female infanticide which gave rise to the Girl Child Protection Scheme implemented in 1991 where each rural familiar had to meet certain medical obligations such as sterilization of the mother to qualify for a growth fund financial aid from the government for the girl child which was released to the family when the child turned 20 (Perwez, 2011, p. 250-251). Seeing the increasing rate of female infanticide, the Indian government also banned the use of ultrasonography to determine gender of a child during pregnancy. However, a persisting question around such policies and schemes is how effective are they in impacting and curbing female infanticide? Weak law enforcement and easy access to ultrasonography has failed to curb the practice of female infanticide in India (United Nations Report, 2016). In India, ultrasounds and abortions can be done for about $150. For the privileged and wealthier few, sex selection through In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) and other technologies such as Pre-Implantation Genetic Diagnosis (PGD), and sperm-sorting have emerged as the next challenge in front of change makers towards curbing female infanticide (United Nations Report, 2016). This practice of female infanticide is so deeply embedded within the Indian culture that the Indian women’s rights activists Donna Fernandes says that “it is almost impossible to do away with them”. She explicates that this is a form of “female genocide” that directly impacts the gender proportion ratios in India where for every 100 boys born, 89 girls are born and where a female child aged between 1 and 5 is 75% more likely to die as opposed to a male child (World Economic Forum Report, 2016)

The declining rates of women are also an evolutionary concern for human reproduction as this means that there are fewer girls born per male. The impacts of this skewed sex-ratio are visible in Indian states like Haryana where the state’s rampant sex selective abortion and rigid marriage laws in the community have led to a drought of brides for bridegrooms of marriageable age. This has in turn resulted in a surge in issues of human trafficking as people have begun stealing or importing brides from nearby countries or from within the country itself. It is not surprising that it is also in this very state where slogans like ‘Save the Girl Child’ and ‘New India’ are a mere rhetoric, as Haryana recently witnessed a spate of attacks on women across age groups, ranging from a three-year-old to a 50-year-old woman (Taken from The Wire, January 2018). Hence, I propose in this paper that empowering women is critical to solving the water crisis. Involving women can make water projects 6 to 7 more times effective (UN Water Report, 2013). When women have access to safe water, they can pursue skills outside of their traditional roles and experience greater autonomy and independence. They can empower their communities and support their families in a more agentic way.

Why do I care? My identity as an Indian woman largely shapes my passion for changing the dynamics of the gender and socio-economic barriers that women face in India. Science and Engineering are as male-dominated fields in India as they are in the United States. In high school, as a science major I had to negotiate a culture characterized by masculine values and behavioral norms, hidden within an ideology of meritocracy (Eisenhart & Finkel, 1998). I noticed and felt the presence of gender-based discrimination at school where both female and male teachers would give more weight to the voices of my male peers as compared to me and my female peers. Going to high school in an affluent community, I also became aware of the socio-economic disparities that existed around me. Belonging to a middle-class joint family (where extended members of our family lived with us) I was exceedingly aware of the financial challenges my family was facing for teaching me in an affluent school where the yearly fees was considerably high as compared to the fees needed to pay for my cousins and my elder sister’s schooling. It was also difficult for me to navigate this new space as I felt the socio-economic pressures of having to conform accordingly as per the expected standards of my peers. These now perceptibly superficial norms and expectations included dressing affluently (western clothing being viewed as affluent dressing), speaking fluent English, having friendships with affluent and popular students, and so on. It was also during high school that I began questioning my sexuality. I was distressed, puzzled, and an unsettling angst engulfed me whenever I thought of my attraction to both males and females. I remember thinking that there was something innately wrong with these feelings of attraction. Naïve and unaware of the concept of bisexuality, I lived with a sense of self-loathing for having sexual and romantic feelings for females as contrasted to the normative male attraction until fairly recently when I accepted and embraced my sexuality. Now that I reflect on these challenges and knowing what I know now, I am increasingly aware that the challenges I faced were trivial as compared those faced by young women around me who belonged to lower middle-class families and families below the poverty level in India. I remember having a conversation with our maid’s daughter where she mentioned that she wakes up at 4 am to get water from the nearby community well. She was 10-year old during this time and did not attend school as her parents had money enough only to send one child to school and they chose to send her brother. In that moment I do not recall thinking twice about what she said but it now seems so personal and heart-wrenching to think that a 10-year old girl who should have been in school was forced to work and support her family both financially and domestically in handling the household tasks (I intentionally call them tasks and not chores as I think the word chores has a very western and privileged connotation to it). My intersectional identities coupled with my experiences shape my perception of creating a world free of these gendered and socio-economic disparities and free of culturally prejudiced perspectives.

Lack of Water is Lack of Equality. Millions of people live in poverty everyday due to lack of clean water sources. Often, the water sources that are available are polluted and are located far away. In countries like India, the task of water collection most frequently falls to women and young girls. Often, these women and girls spend hours a day traveling to collect water to meet their family’s needs. As this task is so time consuming, they are often unable to finish their education, focus on domestic duties and find other job opportunities. Having access to clean, nearby water sources empowers women to improve their futures and to bring their families and communities out of poverty. Water scarcity is an economic and social concern that directly impacts the families of lower income households and women are the ones who are most impacted by this issue. I propose that education for women can help empower them and this can in turn help them empower their households and their communities.

Education allows women to improve their futures and the future of their communities. According to The World Bank, girls’ education is essential in “the reduction of child and maternal mortality, improvement of child nutrition and health …enhancement of women’s domestic role and… improvement of the economic productivity and growth…” (The World Health Organization, 2012). Many girls do not have time for their education because they are needed to collect water daily for their family’s everyday needs. Having a close water supply allows these girls to save hours of time with which they can work on their education. Projects, such as those sponsored by The Water Project, build and repair wells throughout Africa and India to bring clean water sources closer to the communities. By having this close water source, women and girls do not have to travel for hours a day to collect the water needed to support their families. They have more time to work on their schooling to improve their prospects for their futures and the futures of their families and communities. With closer water supplies, women also have more time in the domestic setting. At home, the extra time allows women to better take care of their families and to improve the overall health and nutrition of their families. With improved health, these families can work together to develop their communities and improve their futures and improve the lives of those in future generations.

With the added time, women are given more opportunities to work outside of the home to bring in extra income for their families. This extra income can be used to improve the lives of her and her family by providing them with better financial access to medical treatments, education, and to food other than the food produced by the family farm, which can provide a much more balanced diet for her family and improve their overall health. But the situation is not as simpler as it seems.

The situation of schooling for girls is troublesome as lower-income families choose to educate a boy child over a girl child as resources are limited and the income furthermore in a single lower-income household. Even when education is free, parents earning lower-income wages choose to send the boys in the family to school due to the still persistent sexist notion that ‘a boy will find a job and support the family’ whereas ‘a girl will cost us money’ due to the dowry system in India where marrying a girl can cost from $500 to $5K for someone from a low-income household. Education is critical to breaking these stereotypical gendered notions and also for breaking the cycle of poverty. However, over half of the world’s schools lack access to safe and clean water facilities (United Nations Women, 2015). Clean water is essential for running a school as lack of water both at home and at school seriously affects a child’s health and in turn their performance and attendance at school. Studies also show that if schools do not have proper toilets (for which water is integral), girls drop out once they reach puberty. Further, it is typically the responsibility of the women to fetch water thus limiting their access to both education and business opportunities. Every day, women and young girls carry more than 40 pounds of dirty water from sources over 4 miles away from their homes. This leaves little time for education which is critical to changing the long-term prospects of developing nations.

With the many additional burdens that lack of clean water brings, education simply becomes less of a priority. This sets up an unfortunate cycle of poverty and inequality as without a proper education, there is little chance of improving one’s situation later in life. Water projects across India are working to break this cycle. Sometimes the first public voice the women of a community ever have, comes from an individual woman who is part of a water committee. Women in rural areas are central to making a change in the approach their communities and the society at large takes towards water sustainability issues as well. As Kingsolver (2017) asserts, “If students [in this case young women and girls] have collective experience deconstructing stereotypes that devalue their own knowledge, perhaps they are more likely to have confidence in local analyses and solutions.” Hence, rather than imposing solutions onto the rural women and their families, I see young women as creators of solutions. I see them as problem solvers in tackling the water sustainability and water crisis issues in India. I see formal and/or informal education as helping them create new knowledge banks and building on their present knowledge to develop solutions that sustain and support their present and future generations. As India aims to transition on the path of sustainable development, the current policy focus on the green economy provides a historic opportunity. Much would depend on how soon the policymakers switch from regarding the rural women as a disadvantaged group to powerful decision-makers with insights to drive strategies for a better future. The key priorities to making this a truly transformative agenda for all women should inter alia include enhancing their role in private and public decision-making; enhancing access to finance; training and capacity building on technology; and capturing gender disaggregated data for better policy interventions. Green economy by itself will not change the underlying anomalies such as women’s limited access to productive inputs like credit, land, technology, etc. After all, creating equal opportunities for women is not only a development imperative embedded in human rights, it is critical to accelerating sustainable development.

Kingsolver, A. (2017). Practical resources for critical science education in rural Appalachia. Cultural Studies of Science Education, 12(1), 219-225.
MacIver, R. M. (1914). Society and “the individual”. The Sociological Review, 7(1), 58-64.
Vaughan, R. P. (2010). Girls’ and women’s education within Unesco and the World Bank, 1945–2000. Compare, 40(4), 405-423.
Water U.N. (2013). UN-Water on water and gender.
World Economic Forum. (2016). The Global Gender Gap Report.
World Health Organization. (2012). Global costs and benefits of drinking-water supply and sanitation interventions to reach the MDG target and universal coverage.
World Health Organization and UNICEF Joint Monitoring Programme (JMP). (2017). Progress on Drinking Water and Sanitation, 2017 Update and MDG Assessment.
Women, U. N. (2015). Progress of the World’ s Women 2015-2016: Transforming Economies, Realizing Rights (No. id: 7688).


Published by Swati

Advocate for Gender Equity in STEM Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: