Why is fetching water considered a ‘woman’s job’?

7 March 2019

In many parts of the world, fetching water is mainly considered a job for women and children. It is well known, that this places a huge burden on them. However, much less attention is paid to how this laborious task affects women and children through physical injury. When water infrastructure is inadequate, the human body becomes part of the water delivery service. We also rarely take the time to understand why fetching water is predominantly considered as the “woman’s job” (or that of children).

To celebrate International Women's Day, IHE Delft is hosting a one-week photo exhibition at which a selection of MSc student Neha Mungekar’s photos are shown. She will also be exhibiting them at the IRC wash symposium from 12th to 14th March, in The Hague, the Netherlands. For more information, including information about the location, please see the conference website.

Three months of ethnographic study in Kapau, Western Province of Zambia, delved deeply into the daily experience of women and children. It revealed how cultural norms of the region affect what issues are voiced with regards to water. The research investigates the reason why people here consider water fetching as a “trivial “chore and delegate only to women and children. The study highlights how deep rooted such cultural influences are, and those factors are not always obvious for the casual observer. For example, in Kapau, it is Lozi dowry practices that shape behavioural expectations on women, make it into an accepted routine to be practiced.

Women walk for 30 minutes from their homes

Let us first understand the journey to fetch water. In few cases, women walk for 30 minutes from their homes to the well and back, to fill and carry 10 buckets – which in total can take about 5 hours if they do not have help. Hot sand and thorns on the paths make these walks uncomfortable. However they also mentioned that, with the right company, a long walk for water can be filled with laughter, conversation and sharing of wild berries. 

Lifting the buckets

To further understand this activity, I also performed this task with the women to experience the details of this ordeal. When placed on top of the head, the filled water buckets are more balanced and easier to carry. But, without help, ‘lifting the buckets’ alone to carry them on one’s head can be difficult for women of various ages, and may cause severe injuries.

Because it is a woman’s job!

When inquired about the reason of carrying out the chore, the most common answer would be, “because it is a woman’s job!” This job allocation stems from gendered norms engrained in the culture. These are often defined in the local customs; in Kapau it was the Lozi culture that dictated the behavioural standards for men, women and children. One of such customs is the ‘Lobola’ (bride price/dowry) practice. Before getting married, the man pays the negotiated amount in the form of money or cows to the woman’s parents as a token of gratitude for raising their daughter. For most men in Kapau, they interpret this as means of enforcing authority on the women as she has been bought by him. It is therefore now the wife’s duty to perform demanding domestic chores. Complaining of body pain from carrying buckets could be considered as a failure to keep one’s marriage vows and may lead to a divorce. This is one of the reasons why many women do not explicitly voice their complaints.

When the bore-well is far from home, water-dependent chores like washing clothes or utensils, are usually done at the well site, causing women to remain outdoors for longer period of time. Multi-tasking with children and domestic duties in these conditions can be a real challenge for the mothers. Others at the bore well, such as young single women, help to care for the young children while their mothers are working. This way, the bore-well become a place for socialising and baby-sitting.

The ethnographic study highlighted the fact that the plights faced by different women are not the same. The specific roles and responsibilities of each woman makes their suffering unique. One group that stood out was the group of ‘mothers’. Having to assume the two roles of a water carrier and a mother, simultaneously takes a toll on their body. This picture shows a mother who is carrying a 20 litre bucket while caring for her children at the same time. She evidently risks her knees, joints and muscles to injuries as she has to balance the weight of the water-filled bucket over her head.

Women often suffer from heat strokes

While investigating more about the water fetching activities, I spoke to a local doctor to inquire about any physical complaints or health concerns raised by the users. He elaborated how most of them suffer from spinal issues and pain in their limbs due to lifting of the heavy buckets. He further explained how women often suffer from heat strokes and other physical problems due to high temperatures. As some women also carry their babies on their backs while working, the little ones also suffer the same plight as their mothers. 

Some men also translate payment of lobola as ownership of women. As the children in the family grow up, these chores are then passed on to them.

About the author

Neha Mungekar is an urban designer and a documentary photographer currently pursuing her second Masters in Water Governance and Management at IHE – Delft. She publishes her work under the title – N-Route. You can follow her work on www.facebook.com/nroute2014 and on Instagram @n_route.

The MSc research presented above was conducted in connection with the project “Women and Water for Change in Communities”. The project aims to promote the inclusion of women in water – related decision making and strengthen the role of women as sustainability change agents in rural African communities. Action Research activities conducted at three sites in Zambia, Tanzania and Uganda aim to improve our understanding of what ‘empowerment’ truly means, and how it can be meaningfully supported by development partners. All activities were made possible by support from The Coca-Cola Foundation (Community Grant IG-2016-1764) and the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme (Grant No. 689744).

All the photographs have been taken with due consent of the respective people, including the permission of the village head. In accordance with the child protection policy, the photographs of the children have been taken with the consent of their parents/carers and children.


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