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Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

Real lives

India: Water and sanitation and the power of women

© UNICEF/HQ00-0631/Lemoyne
An early childhood development worker gives a girl water to drink in Rajasthan, India.

In India, like most developing countries, women are the collectors of water, spending between one to four hours a day lugging jugs to their homes. They are the ones who manage household water use. Local women are usually the experts on water in their communities: where it is located, how reliable the source is, what the community needs and what prevents families from practising hygienic behaviour. So it is not surprising that UNICEF enlisted women as important members of the  water and sanitation team.

In the UNICEF-assisted Sanitation, Water and Community Health project, five women from neighbouring communities in the Rajasthan district maintain the villages’ hand pumps. UNICEF helped a local non-governmental organization (NGO) train these mostly illiterate rural women to keep their villages’ water flowing. In this male-dominated environment, the women are now recognized for their important roles in society.

Narayni, Rasila, Shambhu, Mira and Lakshmi were taught to service and repair the India Mark II, an Indian-made handpump designed especially for the water challenges of the country. They check each pump every two weeks. Dressed in grey uniforms covering their brightly coloured saris, the women can be seen trudging through fields and brush to repair broken machinery. The team is called upon at least five or six times a month to get a pump up and running. They are paid a small salary for their efforts, adding up to about two full workdays a week.

“People used to laugh at us in the beginning,” said Shambhu. “They didn’t think we could do what they said was a man’s job.”

Taking a pump apart is a strenuous job and the toolboxes each weigh15 kilogrammes. Sometimes they need to ask their husbands to do the heavy lifting. At other times, the villagers who ask them to make the repairs must haul the toolboxes up hills and over many kilometres of rough terrain to reach the pumps. 

The all-women crew has not always been enthusiastically embraced.

“People used to laugh at us in the beginning,” said Shambhu. “They didn’t think we could do what they said was a man’s job.”

The women have won over the doubters. Their dependability, determination and skill have helped to keep the villages’ water pumps flowing. The crew has helped improve the health of the communities, giving families safe water for cooking, washing and farming. By investing in local efforts, UNICEF, non-governmental organizations and the government have ensured a sustainable water programme designed and maintained by the community. 

The success of this women-directed project has been duplicated in many other states throughout India. With each new project, resistance to women being trained as mechanics has dissipated. Not only do their efforts serve the community, but their wages  supplement family incomes. There is another benefit as well. Many of the women workers are now receiving literacy classes as part of their mechanic’s training.

By tapping into women’s experience and wisdom, communities have gained access to safe water and the women have gained stature and self-esteem.



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