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Three women’s persistence solves a village water crisis

Story

By Chandrika Patnaik

27 June 2021

Jashoda Mohanta, Rashmi Rekha Mohanta, and Jayanti Mohanta led the charge to prioritise women’s needs, safety, and health of their community and get piped water supply to every household in their village.

Rashmi Rekha Mohanta receives 24*7 water at her home through the community piped water supply system in her village.

Photograph by Parikhita Nayak

Jashoda Mohanta arrived at the village Ghodaghaguri as a new bride in 2012. She was shocked when she realised there were no toilets in her new house. Back in her village, Sialijoda, Jashoda was not used to defecating in the open or fetching water from outside.

Ghodaghaguri, in the Mayurbhanj district of Odisha, suffered a severe water crisis. Houses on one side of the village depended on water from a small canal at the village periphery. The canal got water from a spring in the nearby Sarabadi village, around three kilometers away. Those using this canal for water would also defecate on its banks. The others living on the opposite side of the village depended on a pond close to a Ghodaghaghuri forest. They used the ground near the pond to relieve themselves.

Jashoda remembers the struggle, “For women, it was a daily struggle to find a safe place in the vacant area next to the pond or defecating along the canal banks. They were not only vulnerable to snake bites but also feared for their safety”.

Though the village had seven tube wells, only three had safe water fit for drinking. The remaining four wells provided only muddy water unsafe for drinking and household purposes.

Instead of complaining about her situation, she decided to sensitise others about the need for an in-house toilet. “Young girls go out and defecate in the open. It is not only unsafe but also embarrassing. But men do not understand this,” says Jashoda thinking about her struggle to convince the Ghodaghaguri community to get a water and sanitation system in the village.

Back home in her village Sialijoda, in Keonjhar, women did not spend hours fetching water. Sialijoda’s women had led the efforts to bring safe water and sanitation to their village community by partnering with Gram Vikas. By 2010-’11, all houses in the village had 24×7 household piped water supply, toilets, and bathing rooms.

Jashoda knew she had to do the same in Ghodaghaguri. She began motivating the residents to support her in constructing toilets and bathing rooms (TBRs) in homes and installing a piped water system in the village.

“Not everyone agreed at the time. Some 15 families refused to budge. They found the cost of constructing the bathroom and toilets beyond their means. But for Gram Vikas to help us, we had to have the approval of all the residents,” she says.

A year of relentless effort 

Like Jashoda Mohanta, Rashmi Rekha Mohanta and Jayanti Mohanta went door to door explaining the benefits of having piped water at home. Though both women did not receive any support from their husbands, they decided to do daily house visits. Women who wanted to join the campaign were rebuked at home and outside by the men.

Men refused to give money for constructing a bathing room and a toilet. They believed that women had, for generations, fetched water for cleaning, cooking, and washing and that it should continue. Some others thought that money spent on sanitation at home was an unnecessary and wasteful expenditure.

When more women joined them, Rashmi Rekha, Jayanti, and Jashoda persisted with their requests to the village committee for a chance to engage with residents on the issue of sanitation during village meetings. After over a year of meetings and convincing, most residents agreed to build a sanitation system for their village. In 2013, the Village Development Committee (VDC) finally agreed and reached out to Gram Vikas.

For the 15 families who were not ready to build TBRs in their homes, as they could not afford the cost, Gram Vikas provided them with the necessary construction materials until they received the Swachh Bharat Mission (SBM) subsidy. The Village Water and Sanitation Committee (VWSC) also supported these families by contributing ₹1000 per household.

In November 2014, work on constructing the TBRs started. By 2018, all 101 households of Ghodaghaguri had TBRs in their homes. The work on the overhead water tank was completed earlier this year, in June.

The bittersweet memory of a struggle

The President of the Village Development Committee and a member of Maa Tara Tarini SHG, Rashmi Rekha Mahanta thinks back on her struggle, “Nearly 900 people depended on the three tubewells where water lies 200 meters below. Fetching water was the only thought I had the moment I woke up in the morning. After that, I spent most of my time waiting in a queue and fetching water 8-10 times a day. I went to the Jhagada river two kilometers away to bathe and wash clothes. But did I have a choice? We needed water.”

“Getting water, washing everyone’s clothes, and cooking was a woman’s responsibility. So when we wanted piped water in our homes, our men never supported us”, said Champamani Mahanta, member of the VDC.

“The men don’t fetch water even if they are home. They play cards during the day and spend money on alcohol. The women were sneered at and criticised for their efforts to get a piped water system in the village.”

Her husband Nanda Kishore Mahanta was quick to reply, “Men go to work to earn an income. I did not support my wife because I felt the cost of constructing a toilet and bathroom was high. Now that everything is in place, I am happy.”

The dream of water at home comes true

Jayanti Mahanta, a member of the VDC, and Maa Parbati SHG cannot hide her excitement, “Last two weeks have been a dream come true. I can cook meals and serve food to my family on time. My son used to go for his coaching classes in the morning without breakfast as I was engaged in fetching water. I have more time to rear and look after my goats. I am planning to increase my livestock for better income”.

The combined efforts of the women, their grit, and their determination reflect how equitable access to water is an empowering factor for women that addresses the root causes of poverty and inequality. Today, an entire village benefits from the foresight and relentless efforts of the women in their community.

Over the past three decades, Gram Vikas’ work in rural water and sanitation has benefitted 82,000 households in 1435 villages spread over 30 districts in Odisha and Jharkhand.

Women members of Ghodaghaguri village in Mayurbhanj district of Odisha are digging for laying of main pipeline.

Photograph by Parikhita Nayak

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

Reporting and photographs by Parikhita Nayak, Thematic Coordinator at Gram Vikas. Priya Pillai edited the story.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Chandrika Patnaik is with the Communications Team at Gram Vikas and leads on content production.

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