This study explored the implications of a groundwater development project on women’s workload and their exposure to marital violence. (Global Water Forum)
The global water crisis has affected women and men in many different ways. There is evidence that millions of women carry a double burden of disadvantage from the water crisis.1,2 In many instances, water development projects and water privatization restrict women’s access to water, further increasing their burden.2,3In rural Bangladesh, women are primarily responsible for domestic water use and men are mainly engaged in irrigation.4 However technology-intensive water development initiatives have largely emphasized irrigation, thus facilitating men’s water needs.5,6
Gendered roles and marital violence in rural Bangladesh
Marital male violence against women is widespread in rural Bangladesh. A recent study showed that almost 62% of married women were subject to either physical or sexual violence by their husbands.7 However, women are not abused randomly. Researchers mention many cases of wife battery being used as a punishment for failing to fulfill gendered household obligations.8,9 This study explored the implications of a groundwater development project on women’s workload and their exposure to marital violence.10 Fieldwork was conducted in a northwest Bangladesh village between July 2004 and July 2005.
Women’s community meeting, Bangladesh. Source:waterdotorg
The water development project
Groundwater was the only reliable source of water in the vicinity of the study village. There were three means of lifting groundwater: deep tube-wells (DTWs), shallow tube-wells (STWs), and handpumps. DTWs and STWs are operated by motorized pumps and are exclusively used for irrigation, whereas shallow handpumps are used for domestic purposes. However, in the dry season, only a few handpumps lift water because of a lowering of the groundwater table.4 The project facilitated DTW-based irrigation. This contributed to an increase in the area’s agricultural productivity, however many households faced a domestic water shortage in the dry season because the extra irrigation water lowered the groundwater table further.
Gender roles, dry season water crisis and women’s workload
Women’s water needs were mostly related to their domestic obligations, whereas men’s water needs were mostly related to irrigation. The study estimated that, on average, a woman spent 7 hours and 25 minutes daily on domestic water-related work, but a man spent only 19.2 minutes. In the dry season, to fulfill their obligations, women had to walk to distant wells, which resulted in an increase of their domestic workload (see Table 1). A number of women (15.1%) also faced severe difficulties in fulfilling their obligations because of the extra time spent collecting water (see Table 1). Therefore, the development project actually reduced the ability of women to fulfill their normative gender role.
Table 1. Survey of dry season water shortage, increased workload, and women’s difficulties. *11 households that did not have any female members who carried out water-related work were excluded.
Women’s obligations, increased workload, and marital violence
Data indicated that women were obliged to unconditionally obey their husbands. A 36-year old woman exemplified this obligation: “but I made a mistake, as I argued with him… ”. The interviews also indicated that women were expected to manage time. A woman that had experienced violence said it occurred as a punishment for failing to fulfill her household duties. It also illustrates how the lack of water contributed to make the situation worse:
“I went to fetch water… It took a long time because there was a long line… but when I came back, I saw that the man was home. He asked me to serve lunch…. I replied that it took a long time to collect water (as our nearest three handpumps had dried out). But he said that it was my problem if other women can cook on time for their husbands! So when I told him to go to see the deep (DTW)…he got angry and started beating me… I did not argue anymore; rather I went to cook…”.
The other informants supported a perception of marital violence being very common and justified, for a range of reasons such as burning the food while cooking, not having washed the husband’s clothes, not making good-tasting food, etc. Because the water crisis meant that women had to walk to distant wells, sometimes several times in a day, it directly challenged the basic gendered norm system and increased the possibility of socially justified violence.
The water development project largely facilitated men’s irrigation water needs by installing DTWs. Irrigation water had become available all year, whereas the domestic water supply decreased. Many women thus had to walk to distant wells for domestic water collection, which increased their workload. This challenged their possibilities of fulfilling household obligations, thereby increasing the risk of normative marital male violence against women as a punishment for their failure.
In a patriarchal social context, a gender-blind water development project may have severe negative consequences on the lives of many women. We suggest that any water sector projects (e.g., irrigation, fisheries, or health and sanitation projects) should take women’s contextual gendered roles and obligations and social aspects of marital violence into account. Before implementation, there is a need to explore how the development project may influence or be influenced by social norms that determine the relationship between men and women. At the same time, it is important for development interventions to challenge the existing gendered norm systems and to initiate a discussion within the community on gendered roles, rights and obligations.