New Delhi: According to the United Nations Water (UN-Water), without safe drinking water, adequate sanitation and hygiene facilities at home and in places of work and education, it is disproportionately harder for women and girls to lead safe, productive and healthy lives. Banega Swasth India team at NDTV speaks with Zarina Screwvala, co-founder of the Swades Foundation on how access to water, sanitation and hygiene facilities can empower women to break the gender bias and by extension benefit their families.
Here’s is what we discussed with Zarina Screwvala:
NDTV: You have been working in this field for so long. What has been your experience and observations on the status of women’s access to WASH and how has Swades impacted the lives of women?
Zarina Screwvala: At Swades, we believe in a holistic model of development and that ‘Swa Se Bane Des’ (nation-building by people themselves). So wherever we work, villages themselves take the charge. In this process, we have ensured women’s leadership. At least 50 per cent of all the village development committees are run by women. At some places, almost 80 per cent of all village development committees are run by women. The vibrancy of those villages and the work they do is outstanding and this is not in any way to compromise the men. The learning has been that women really carry the burden of poverty. They are the ones who go to fetch water; they are the ones who suffer when there’s no toilet; they cannot earn a livelihood because they are spending four hours fetching water. They are not going to the toilet because they wait till dark to go. Poverty is suffered more by women and the elder daughters. Hence, they are the best agents of change because their need is so powerful. They understand the problem as they are impacted by the problem the most. Therefore, they come up with wonderful solutions.
Swades aims to impact the whole household, but the impact of the work done by us is felt more by women and the elderly. In terms of scale, we work in a one million geography where we have managed so far to give about 26,000 toilets that impact about 1 lakh plus people and 40,000 households have been provided with clean drinking water, which is about 2 lakh people and 200 plus schools have also been benefitted. Not only this, we have trained over 1,000 Swades Mitras who are primarily women and are volunteers in the village and we have trained thousands of schools on WASH with Reckitt’s help. And it all has made a huge difference. Especially during COVID, we did a massive groundwork in changing the mindsets and educating the masses in terms of WASH practices.
NDTV: Why does gender inequity exist in access to water, sanitation and hygiene and how can we change it?
Zarina Screwvala: There are two aspects to this problem of gender inequality- gender bias coupled with women’s natural and very beautiful need to nurture their families. In water, there are two aspects- one is getting the water and the other is the use of water. Both these factors are against the women, making it a double whammy for them. They are the ones who walk miles to fetch water. In hot summer months, they have to go multiple times a day to fetch water. This impacts their energy level, their ability to earn because they have no energy left, it also impacts their physical health. Elder daughters also walk with them, so their education is also impacted. This is not something they choose to do. It is forced upon them.
When it comes to the usage of water, it is seen that a man has the first natural right to the use of water in rural areas. If we talk about toilets, we have seen that the decision to build a toilet in the village is made by men because they hold the purse strings but the need is felt by the women. When women are empowered, these factors are evened out. We have also learnt that when it comes to the need for an individual household toilet, it is a struggle. Women get up at 4 in the morning, they go in small groups to defecate outside the village. It is undignified, an onslaught on their health and also they get harassed.
NDTV: Given the climate change crisis, what is the impact we are seeing on the ground on women and is there a gender divide in terms of the impact of the environmental crisis?
Zarina Screwvala: Unfortunately, yes. It is because, women are responsible for gathering the food, cooking the food and so collecting the firewood and for the water. When climate change happens, all these factors become more difficult to access for women. Their everyday life is heavily impacted by climate change. Because women bear the brunt, they also come up with really innovative solutions. In some villages, women decided to use the wastewater from the kitchen to grow a kitchen garden. This has been a successful practice because it not only helps feed the family, but the women are also able to sell the vegetables. Once the women are empowered, they come up with beautiful ways of solving their own problems.
NDTV: What do you think about women and how access to WASH facilities can empower them to break the gender bias and by extension benefit their families?
Zarina Screwvala: We say there is no silver bullet to poverty levitation. But, if I have to pick one or two things to uplift the status of people, I would pick toilets and water. Without water there is nothing, there are mass migrations because of lack of water. Once you put water in and because we do it in a particular manner where the communities impart and women are empowered along the way, the whole community is able to come together and start solving their own problems, mindsets start to change. For example, we were trying to solve the water problem of one of the communities we were working with. I went and met the people after the project was launched and we were sitting together to talk and they came and said, you know for 60-years, as a community, we didn’t sit and talk until that very day. That’s why I believed that WASH has the power to change lives, it has an impact on the dignity of women, health issues – what is the point of doing nutrition without clean water.
NDTV: How can access to water improve health and nutrition parameters for women and help in achieving the ultimate goal of Banega Swasth India?
Zarina Screwvala: There is no question in this, we should look at our own home, imagine, we opening the tap water and dirty water comes, will we be able to drink it? What will be the point of nutrition with dirty water, the children will fall sick, they will have diarrhoea. It kills children every day. So, we have to understand that this is all linked. The best way to ensure clean drinking water is community-run Chlorification.
NDTV: What is the government doing to address the water crisis and how are women being targeted under those schemes and programmes?
Zarina Screwvala: We really believe in two programmes that the government is doing and we believe it is working great. One is the Swachh Bharat mission and the second is Jal Jeevan Mission. We believe community ownership should be at the core of WASH-related programmes. We must know once this hypothetical dream is achieved that doesn’t mean that the work should end. The main thing that we love about these two programmes is the bottom-up approach they have, the community empowerment approaches. The women-led communities that they have in the idea they have created are what makes these programmes different and more powerful.
NDTV: What more can be done to improve women’s access to water?
Zarina Screwvala: You got a few aspects here, one is we need to check the quality of water, we need to source it and maintain it. There is enough water it is just not being nurtured properly. We have our rivers that are filthy, we don’t treasure the water resources the way we should. We all need to collaborate to address the issue of water, sanitation and hygiene and make a difference. So, cropping patterns and drip irrigation are very very important. Rationing in the hot months, careful usage, kitchen gardens, and not waste water are some of the ways in which we can sustain the use of water. It takes a community, people and the whole world to change things, so we all need to collaborate. And all of us working together will make a difference.
You can listen to the full Banega Swasth India podcast discussion by hitting the play button on the Spotify player embedded above.
NDTV – Dettol have been working towards a clean and healthy India since 2014 via Banega Swachh India initiative, which is helmed by Campaign Ambassador Amitabh Bachchan. The campaign aims to highlight the inter-dependency of humans and the environment, and of humans on one another with the focus on One Health, One Planet, One Future – Leaving No One Behind. It stresses on the need to take care of, and consider, everyone’s health in India – especially vulnerable communities – the LGBTQ population, indigenous people, India’s different tribes, ethnic and linguistic minorities, people with disabilities, migrants, geographically remote populations, gender and sexual minorities. In wake of the current COVID-19 pandemic, the need for WASH (Water, Sanitation and Hygiene) is reaffirmed as handwashing is one of the ways to prevent Coronavirus infection and other diseases. The campaign will continue to raise awareness on the same along with focussing on the importance of nutrition and healthcare for women and children, fight malnutrition, mental wellbeing, self care, science and health, adolescent health & gender awareness. Along with the health of people, the campaign has realised the need to also take care of the health of the eco-system. Our environment is fragile due to human activity, that is not only over-exploiting available resources, but also generating immense pollution as a result of using and extracting those resources. The imbalance has also led to immense biodiversity loss that has caused one of the biggest threats to human survival – climate change. It has now been described as a “code red for humanity.” The campaign will continue to cover issues like air pollution, waste management, plastic ban, manual scavenging and sanitation workers and menstrual hygiene. Banega Swasth India will also be taking forward the dream of Swasth Bharat, the campaign feels that only a Swachh or clean India where toilets are used and open defecation free (ODF) status achieved as part of the Swachh Bharat Abhiyan launched by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2014, can eradicate diseases like diahorrea and the country can become a Swasth or healthy India.