Water: A story of voice, agency, harmony and leadership among women in Itagacha, Satkhira in Bangladesh

By Adrita Rahman, Muhammad Riaz Hossain and Sohrab Hossain

“The men do not have much of a role when it comes to collecting water for the households,” said one of the older men from Purbopara, Itagacha, Satkhira, Bangladesh during our discussion with the community members on water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) issues. Scarcity of safe drinking water and poor sanitation are two main problems, among many others, that the people living in the informal settlements in Purbopara, Itagacha face in their daily lives.

Interestingly, what the male community members said about not having an active role in collecting water is not unique to Itagacha; this resonates all across Bangladesh where women and girls are known to bear 90 percent of the responsibility of collecting and managing water. It is also known that women mostly suffer from various WASH issues on a daily basis. This, in turn, makes the women and girls more susceptible to water-borne diseases; their struggle with WASH-related issues leads to poor menstrual hygiene practices and the lack of accessible and reliable WASH facilities near their homes has implications on their safety. Despite all this, the vulnerable women of Itagacha have found their voice, agency and leadership skills amidst all odds stacked against them.

Where is Itagacha and who lives here? 

Itagacha is in Satkhira, one of the most climate vulnerable districts in southern Bangladesh. While people there have entrenched vulnerability, among them, the poor living in the informal settlements in Purbopara are climate migrants who are worse off. Purbopara, owned by the Water Development Board (a government agency which is responsible for surface water and ground water management and operates under the Ministry of Water Resources) and is and situated beside a canal called Praan Shayer er Khaal is an informal urban settlement housing 289 families and a population of 986 people. They have built their lives around the canal, by making homes with simple brick structures and relying on the almost non-existent WASH facilities that they get there. The men are mostly daily wage earners, drivers, and small business owners and the women either work as house helps, cleaners, tailors, entrepreneurs of small businesses or sometimes even beg for a living.

WASH-related challenges

There is only one deep tube well in the community that is called “Bayannoh Koll” which can be translated to ‘52 taps’, its name representing the number of pipes connected to the tube well. The people from Purbopara rely on this tube well along with hand pumps that are placed within the community. But this too comes with its own set of problems. There is salinity and excessive iron that accumulates in these hand pumps, restricting the water flow; often insects and worms come out of the outlets; the water storage tank is rarely cleaned due to its sheer volume; at times, the water smells, making it extremely difficult to drink or even work with. Problems like these only worsen during summer when the water supply is barely adequate to meet the needs of the community.

Thus, most of the time, the people of Purbopara, Itagacha borrow water from various sources like the nearby government offices or from their neighbours, relying on their social networks. Some families also purchase water from middlemen, (local small business owners who sell water to these families and use their own transport to deliver the water jars) incurring greater household expenditure, money that could have been spent on buying nutritious food or even medicine. Though water is used by all the family members, the burden of this added chore of borrowing water from nearby places lies on the shoulders of the women in the household, taking up more of their hours.

Flip side of the coin

Although it has been observed that there is little or no participation of women in the water governance and decision-making that revolve around WASH issues across the country, the same is not true for the women in Purbopara. The women in Purbopara are at the forefront of mitigating WASH problems in the informal settlements. Here, women actively seek the local government’s help to place a hand pump, lodge a complaint or write an application to the authorities when the water supply is disrupted and take similar measures to improve the WASH conditions of their community. For instance, Salma shared her experience of how she wrote a letter of complaint herself and mobilized other women near her house and convinced them to go to the local government office to voice their problems. She also mentioned how there was a time when she felt nervous to step outside of her house, let alone speak in front of officers or in a room full of people. Salma smiled as she told us how attending courtyard sessions and meetings arranged by different NGOs had given her the confidence and the leadership skills she lacked before.

Why are women at the forefront in Itagacha while men aren’t interested?

The men from these informal settlements often leave for work really early and view bringing money to the household as their sole responsibility. Women, thus, have to tackle all the other responsibilities while the men are at work. Women here capitalize on their social networks and find out ways to get water to drink for themselves and for the entire family. However, men do partake when it comes to installing toilets or setting up drainage mechanisms for the community. This gendered division of labour has a flip side; it has automatically given the women in Itagacha the opportunity to develop leadership skills and gain agency and voice.

Moreover, Satkhira being a climate-vulnerable area, has a large NGO presence that has come here over the years and worked closely with the women in Purbopara. This has built the women’s capacity and enabled them to voice their concerns and opinions better. An increase in the rate of girls seeking education also played a crucial role in empowering them. This gendered impact, though is a negative consequence, here, it does have some positive outcomes; the women being at the forefront of WASH issues which in turn has some spillover effects.

You can go do your work, I will handle this situation,” one of our female participants said this during community-based participatory research sessions to explain how it is the women who take charge when it comes to seeking social services and or ensuring documents like birth certificates are in place. This shows that there is a positive spillover effect that has happened to other areas because women here are at the forefront of WASH-related challenges and have taken up the challenge of solving other issues in the area.

Additionally, the men in the informal settlements have an aversion to going to the local government office. When we asked our participants why the men take a back seat, they mentioned factors like unavailability due to work commitments, male ego, masculinity and gender roles, shyness and awkwardness to be standing among a large group of women, lack of patience to wait in a queue and giving less significance to household work when compared to their mode of earning a living – play a significant role in deterring men from helping out the women. Additionally, the women mentioned that they use their pending household chores as an excuse to get the work done faster and thus, prefer to go to the municipal office themselves. 

Even when the men do go to collect water, once in a blue moon, they are seen as outliers, outnumbered by the women; they are also given the chance to take water first as it is believed by the community members that the men are in a rush to go to work and that they cannot afford to be late. One of our female participants also added, “Men will only earn a living and feel that all their responsibilities are done. ”

Salma is not the only woman in the community who has found her voice and agency and has emerged as a leader. There are many like her. Young girls in the community, who have greater access to schools are exposed to various NGOs and have Salma and others as their role models. These girls will be the changemakers of tomorrow, where they will be making decisions that shape their own circumstances. Women, being at the forefront in Itagacha’s  water and toilet management ensures that the services are more accessible, safe, and culturally appropriate for adolescent girls and women.  Additionally, women’s groups have also been effective in advocating for better WASH services, mobilizing resources, and promoting behavior change. Thus, all these factors combined have empowered women in Itagacha, giving them greater decision-making abilities and we hope that this continues.