Access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation is a basic human right. Water is necessary not only for drinking but also for food production and preparation, personal hygiene, washing and disposing of waste, care for the sick, domestic animals, etc. Women, regardless of background or social class, shoulder the burden of the responsibility of collecting water from remote sources, which is a crucial part of water accessibility. Women, in most societies, have the primary responsibility of managing household water supply and sanitation. Because of their dependence on water resources, women have accumulated considerable knowledge about water resources, including location, quality and storage methods. However, efforts geared towards improving the management of finite water resources and extending access to safe drinking water and adequate sanitation, often overlook the central role of women in water management. Particularly, in developing countries, sanitation and hygiene are also one of the most visible disparities between men and women. The provision of hygiene and sanitation are considered women’s tasks. Women are promoters, educators and leaders of home and community-based sanitation practices, but their concerns are rarely addressed as societal barriers often restrict women’s involvement and their views are systemically under-represented in the decision-making process. Women and children often bear the brunt of the lack of toilets and other sanitation facilities. A combination of discrimination, lack of political will or attention and inadequate legal structures result in neglect of women’s needs and lack of involvement in sanitation development and planning.
The ambit of access to water for women, especially from the Dalit communities becomes narrower due to their weak socio-economic status. When paired with their lack of political participation and the risk characteristics of being a Dalit and a woman, they are more vulnerable to violent circumstances, which reduce their capacity to flee from the existing situation. As Dalits constitute a significant 16.6 per cent of the total population of India as per the Census of 2011, more than 80 per cent of Dalit households survive on the absolute minimum, in want of basic civic amenities and infrastructure in their habitations, including safe drinking water (Dutta, Sinha & Parashar, 2018). Also, the challenges faced by Dalit women in accessing water from common, often distant sources of water are worsening day by day. For Dalit women, this burden worsens due to lack of ownership and easy access to water sources for drinking and other domestic purposes.
Women in rural India are obliged to carry water for their households due to patriarchal standards. Women from the Dalit community are no exception. As most Dalit households lack provision of drinking water supply/ sources within their premises or vicinity, they largely depend on either common water resources provided by the government, or resources owned by others (often people from dominant castes), eventually leading to discriminatory practices (Dutta, Sinha & Parashar, 2018). Irrespective of the constant caste discrimination, lack of access to resources and abysmally restricted access to (acquire) drinking water, there are signs that Dalits are working to end the cycle of hereditary poverty and lobbying for change in their communities. As a result of their social exclusion, Dalit women frequently suffer physical and mental suffering, accompanied by prejudice and violence. In many places, traditionally sanctioned socio-cultural norms like untouchability still play a critical role despite the natural availability of water.
Despite laws, Dalits continue to bear the brunt of marginalisation and deprivation and still face maximum challenges in availing their share of safe drinking water from public sources (Dutta, Behera & Bharti, 2015). Dalit women are subjected to numerous discriminatory acts from their higher caste counterparts while getting water from public sources. Discrimination can vary widely, including long queues to fill pots, abusive language, and even physical assault and humiliation at the hands of upper caste people. In this regard, Dalton (2008) states that a Dalit woman’s plight might be summed up in the phrase ‘Triple Dalit’ or ‘Thrice Dalit’—being a woman, a poor woman, and a poor Dalit woman. As a result, Dalit women occupy a distinct, yet unenviable, position in the social hierarchy, where they are discriminated against not just because of their caste, but also because of their class (primarily eco-political class) and gender. The International Dalit Solidarity Network (IDSN, 2009) claims that as a result of severely imbalanced socio-economic, and political power equations, the position of Dalit women at the bottom of caste, class, and gender hierarchies exposes them to systemic gender and caste discrimination as well as to physical and mental violence.
An example of women leading the charge from the Mainpura community in northwest Patna city has been working with WaterAid to secure better access to water and sanitation.
It has managed to ensure each house has its water supply and a concrete area outside for the latrine. The disparity between communities with and without potable water was stark, and not just in terms of child health and education. A member of the Mainpura women’s organisation, Lalmanti Devi, shared, “Thinking has changed. There was no demeanour in the way we talked, sat, or clothed before. I may now sit in front of you and speak with you.”
Thus, even in the 21st century, caste discrimination that dehumanizes and perpetuates a cruel form of discrimination continues to be practised in the country. Over time, discrimination against Dalits has metamorphosed from being overt and acceptable to being subtle, hidden and morally unacceptable. This continuing discrimination and violence against Dalit women are the manifestation of the reinforcement of elements of the caste hierarchy of feudal order. It indirectly challenges the human rights and dignity enshrined in the constitution and existence of the welfare state, wherein the State is unable to protect and ensure the rights and dignity of the marginalised and deprived sections of the society. The reality on the ground reveals the depth of the inequitable caste. And the level of discrimination and stigmatisation Dalits endure in their lives. Accessing water appears to be one area where caste-based discrimination is routinely experienced. Despite constitutional provisions in place for penalising those practising such discrimination, it continues to thrive, and Dalit’s access to water usually depends on the ‘goodwill’ of the dominant castes. Gender analysis builds understanding of the demands and needs of women and men, and their respective knowledge and expertise, attitudes and practices. It draws light on the constraints for women’s and men’s participation in activities and also ensures women’s participation and involvement, leadership and management in regards to water accessibility.
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