COVID–19, Women and Water in Urban India
(Image by Oleg Malyshev, 2016)
Written by Mansha Marwah
The first case of COVID-19 in India was reported on 30 January 2020 and a lockdown was announced on 24 March 2020. On 3 April 2020, the Central Government produced an advisory for the state governments: “Advisory for ensuring safe drinking water during lockdown and effective management of pandemic caused by Corona Virus”. This statement, however, does not reflect reality. India has the largest number of people in the world living with water scarcity- approximately one billion people. UNICEF and WHO data from 2017 illustrate that only 44 percent of India’s population has access to piped water. Additionally, those living in poverty, in informal settlements and rural populations, lack access to any clean water, which is essential for frequent hand washing to protect from, and prevent the spread of, COVID-19. For the majority in India, water of adequate quality and quantity is unavailable, intermittently available and/or inaccessible, rendering people in these situations particularly susceptible to infection.
Many households in India do not have access to water supply within their homes and often depend on shared sources of water. These are usually households in urban informal, low income and insecure housing areas. Residents here tend to deal with exacerbated stressors due to government neglect and a lack of proper infrastructure for basic amenities. An analysis of five of India’s most populous states, which accounted for 46% of all COVID-19 cases, as of June 10, found that in informal areas and poorer neighbourhoods, a lack of exclusive access to drinking water and distance to the source of water meant that proper hygiene and handwashinghabits were a challenge for households. These areas are usually densely populated so social distancing is hard, especially if residents share a water source. Hence, preventing theinfection also becomes a challenge. Due to the infrequent and intermittent supply of water, the household priority is often cooking food and drinking water, often at the expense of hand washing and other essential hygiene behaviours.
The experiences and effects of the pandemic affect women more harshly. Even though studies find that men are more vulnerable to losing their lives to the virus, women are disproportionately affected by its political, economic and social consequences. Instances of domestic violence across the globe are increasing, as has historically been the case in contexts of uncertainty.These women are moreover forced to continue with their everyday household labour and responsibilities while simultaneously dealing with this violence. The pandemic has highlighted the need for and value of this unpaid labour, termed by feminists as “social reproduction”.
Women bear the brunt of water scarcity simply because they are responsible for finding water for their family’s everyday needs. They are often the ones that have to stand in long lines to wait for water and walk long distances to collect it.Before the pandemic, a woman in Chennai described how her wait for water began at 4am in the dark, and how she spent her mornings looking for water and then rationing it for washing, bathing and cooking. A report from 2019 stated that Indian women on average spent 16 hours a day doing this kind of unpaid care work.
The need for this reproductive labour has increased during this pandemic especially due to the heightened demand for water in the household. “It’s been three days since the water tanker came to our area and, without, you can see that this place is a mess,” Kumudhashri R, a woman in Chennai was reported as saying. Since the lockdown was imposed, she has been locked at home with her family and complains, “Since everybody is at home now the demand for water is more, but what we are getting isn’t sufficient at all”. None of the 500 families on her street have access to piped water supply. The residents are completely dependent on the water tanker that comes to their area twice a week and they are not allowed to fill more than three pots per family. The women have been walking 3-5 kilometers daily to fetch more water. Less water makes cooking, cleaning and managing household health more difficult, responsibilities largely assigned to women. Much of the burden to reduce water use therefore falls on women, who have to carry out the same duties with fewer resources.
Water, along with other resources is unequally distributed in a household due to women’s lower status within family and society, and the perception of their labour being of less worth. This, along with the increased demand for water in the household might mean that many women are unable to meet everyday sanitation needs especially those related to menstrual hygiene. Even before the pandemic, women and girls in many parts of India struggled with menstrual hygiene, owing to a lack of clean water, a lack of access to safe menstrual hygiene products and taboos around menstruation. COVID-19 has intensified these struggles, illustrating another example of how it is disproportionately affecting women in India.
Moreover, the nationwide lockdown that restricts mobility would have had an adverse impact on unpaid care work carried out by women across the country as many would have been unable to move freely outside of their homes to, for instance, collect water. These women would have then been forced to break rules of social distancing in order to fulfill daily survival needs for their families, risking not only contracting the virus and their health but also, in some cases, state violence.
Women, in the context of this pandemic, are experiencing amplified responsibilities with regards to unpaid labour at home. These tasks such as fetching water or cooking are essential for the smooth functioning of a household. This dependence on women’s altruism shifts the responsibility of survival and maintaining the status quo during disasters and pandemics onto women, which often affects women negatively causing what has been termed as “depletion” of their health and general wellbeing. Holding women responsible for this survival obscures the role of the state in addressing issues and inequalities that lead to these issues in the first place.
The consequences of COVID-19 are disproportionately affecting women in urban informal settlements in India. Due to the sexual division of labour, it is women who are responsible for carrying out daily household tasks that are essential for the reproduction of everyday life. These responsibilities have been exacerbated by the pandemic, resulting in potential mental and physical harm to women’s health and overall wellbeing. Care burdens must be shared both by men and women, not just in disasters and pandemics but in everyday life. This will need gender responsive policies targeting social and cultural change that help families adopt and adapt to a more equitable way of living. Moreover, strategies to mitigate effects of COVID-19 must take into account an analysis of gendered experiences.
With regards to water challenges, the government must immediately enact and implement enforceable policies and strategies on the provision of emergency water in all water-scarce areas for all people during the COVID-19 pandemic. Access to water should be available regardless of tenure or settlement status. In the long term, COVID-19 should act as a lesson and the government should strengthen infrastructure facilities to be able to provide access to clean, safe water for all. This will require sustained political commitment, increased budget allocations for health, and improved physical infrastructure.