"When there is water scarcity, women are worst affected," says Santokben Lakhabhai Kamaria from Gujarat, one of the 1500 village women who traveled to Bheekampura village in Alwar, Rajasthan, western India, to attend the recent, three-day National Women's Water conference.
"When there is no water in the villages, no crops grow. Men migrate to the cities for work and women are left to fend for themselves, their children, old members of the family and their cattle," explains Santokben.
The conference, organized by Tarun Bharat Sangh, an NGO working to conserve traditional water systems in Rajasthan's villages, focused on the role of women in water management and how control over water can empower them. The time spent they would have spent in fetching water from far off places is utilized by women in learning the alphabet, taking better care of children and their own health and engaging in community work.
At the conference women talked, listened, argued, related experiences and drew up resolutions on how to manage water resources in their villages. While the women discussed water issues, the men took a backseat and managed the children.
Sarabai, a gusty woman from Kutchh, Gujarat, western India, described the crisis women face when there is no water. "There is no income for women. In our part of the world, the income from the sale of milk and ghee (clarified butter) goes to women directly. The family gets nourishing food and financial security during other crisis. But when there is no water, there is no fodder for the animals, and there is no milk. Men go to the city and the abandoned women have to go to far off, strange places to get work. At work they are often exploited and harassed."
The water conference brought together rural women from 12 Indian states, many of them had never traveled out of their villages or held microphones in their hand. But in Beekampura the women took centre stage. Seventy-five-year-old Muttama from Tamil Nadu spoke of how the replacement of traditional water tanks with modern conservation systems disempowered women in her village. The traditional tanks gave women more time to do other things. Once they fell into disuse, women spent most of their time collecting water. "Today we have organized ourselves to revive these tanks. Twenty-five per cent of the labor for reviving these reservoirs comes from women. There is water underground and greenery over ground wherever we work," says a proud Muttama.
Budhna, a tribal woman from Orissa, eastern India, described how the women of her village and neighboring villages fought to reforest a hillock to prevent soil erosion and conserve water. "We watered every sapling once a week. Just when the saplings were beginning to grow, a contractor came along to cut down the older trees. The women took him to the police, who initially refused to file a report, but when the women threatened to report the matter to the Prime Minister, they complied. The contractor never returned to the village."
Santabai from Madhya Pradesh, central India, who has helped revive old silted tanks and ponds in her village says, "These things work better with women. Our men have got used to blaming the government and running to the liquor vends whenever the going gets tough. Women suffer violence at home and yet work with determination." She adds, "Men and governments have done enough damage. Now they should move over and let women set things right."
Another water conservation enthusiast, Shantaben, from Dador, Gujarat, formed an organization of women and built check dams, revived old ponds and even procured a solar pump to pump water to other villages. In the same state, Santokben, who otherwise appears very shy, very effectively led
women of Seriaj village in solving their water shortage. With support from other NGOs, the women learnt to build water-harvesting systems in every neighborhood. Today, despite drought in several villages, Seriaj homes have enough stored water.
Sharing his 20-year struggle - to green parts of desert Rajasthan through water harvesting - Ramon Magasaysay award winner Rajendra Singh says, "To solve the country's water problem, we have to first recharge the earth's own resource. Women play an important role here." Singh believes water
conservation furthers community development. "When we started work in this area, boys and girls did not go to school. Today, even the girls go to school and you can see how they express themselves."
Voicing opposition against male control over water management, some of the women said: "We are involved in bringing water from far off places, using it for cooking, cleaning, washing, and feeding animals. But when it comes to taking decisions on water management, we are nowhere."
The women are equally critical of the recently constituted National Water Policy, which proposed privatization of water bodies. "How can a river belong to anyone? Water is needed not just by humans but also by animals and trees," states Budhna. "If the tiger comes to drink, will you tell it
not to? It will eat you first and then drink!"
The women at the conference resolved to fight tooth and nail to protect water. "We will take our sticks and chase out those who attempt to sell our water to us," declared a young Rajasthani bride.
Even young girls appeared determined to change life in their villages. Sita Munia, a 17-year-old from Jhabua, Madhya Pradesh, attempts to convince her conservative village men that women be given charge of water conservation. "I haven't succeeded yet but I will keep trying," says Sita.