Better Access to Water Improves Women's Lives in Pakistan

Article | 10 March 2008

Water and sanitation investment projects are empowering women and creating a significant impact on gender relations in rural Pakistan.

Punjab - Bashiran Bibi and other women and girls in the rural heartland of Pakistan's most populous province of Punjab used to spend hours everyday collecting and carrying water on their heads in heavy pots.

The water often came from uncovered wells, filthy rivers and streams, and stagnant ponds, putting their and their families' health at risk.

But - thanks to a project jointly funded by ADB and the provincial government - clean water and sanitation are now available to 2.5 million rural Punjabis.

Empowered Women

The change has not just improved the health of many communities. It has also empowered women, freeing them from a back-breaking chore to engage in other more productive tasks.

"By fetching water 3 to 4 hours a day in scorching heat, and carrying the pitchers on our head many of us were even losing our hair to the degree that we were about to become bald. We had to carry water even when we were pregnant making our job even more difficult," says Bibi, chairperson of the Women Community Organization in Dera Ghazi Khan.

"Water here is so scarce that we could only take a bath once a week, or sometimes twice a month. Men use to sit around and chat, and it was us who had to fetch water, cook food, and look after the children. This has now changed."

The statistics on access to clean water and sanitation in rural Pakistan make for grim reading.

Of the country's population of 160 million, 84 million live in Punjab and about 60% of that number are rural dwellers. Half of this large rural group is forced to draw water from unsafe sources and only a quarter of Punjab's rural population has access to household latrines. The lack of toilets causes both health risks and environmental pollution.

In a bid to address these issues, ADB joined hands with the Punjab Government for a project to fund water supply and drainage facilities for 1,085 rural communities. An initial ADB loan of $46 million in 1995 was followed by another $50 million in 2002.

Active Participation

Ensuring the active participation of women in the project was key.

"At the project preparatory stage, a gender analysis was carried out to assess how the project could contribute to women's empowerment and overall changes in gender relations. The result of the gender analysis then formed part of the policy dialogue with government agencies, and finally the project design was reconciled with the gender analysis to ensure benefit to women before, and during, the implementation period," explains Raza M. Farukh, ADB project implementation officer.

All community groups established by the project have strong female representation, allowing them to learn from each other and share concerns with project and government officials.

"We could have started with trying to motivate men in the village but we preferred to work with women because the project is about water. Women deal with water-related problems all day long - they understand problems like unclean water, leakages, broken pipes. Men don't care much about such petty problems. Hence, we focused on women and through them influenced the men," says Rabia Kausar, a social organizer from Bhawalpur in southern Punjab.

The positive economic impact of freeing women and girls from their previous long-winded collection chore to engage in other work is unequivocal.

A calculation based on daily collection time of 3-4 hours, an average female wage of about 60 Pakistani rupees (PRs) a day, and other key variables shows that the monetary value of the time saved in a year by ending this task is around PRs2,874 (about $46) per person.

Back to School

Another beneficial spin-off is that girls now have time to attend school.

"I have started going to school for the first time and I like it. I don't mind sitting in class with girls several years younger. My mother and I used to fetch water. I started fetching water when I was only 5 years old. Thus, it has been 10 long years," says 15-year-old Shakeela.

"At times when I refused to go, everybody including my grandmother would admonish me as disobedient. Now I don't have to go out to collect water, I will complete my education and will become a teacher in the village school," Shakeela adds.

Communities that have benefited from the new water facilities have seen their school enrolment levels soar. Primary school enrolment in one village rose 30%; in another, it tripled among girls and grew 40% for boys.

Healthy and Wealthy

With their time freed from fetching water, women have been able to take part in a wide range of more productive jobs - such as rearing livestock, raising poultry, and working in the fields - and are now able to supplement and boost their families' income. Many have also turned to weaving, sewing, and embroidery.

Since she received her new water connection, Gulab Mai, in her 40s, has spent more of her time weaving mats. "I get cash for my mats in the market," she says. "Now, I complete weaving a mat in 2-3 days, but before I had the water connection, it would take nearly a week. Surely, I now have more energy and money to spend on my children."

Health conditions in the project area have also improved with a significant reduction in cases of dysentery, cholera, and typhoid, as well as miscarriages and premature births.

Azeema Bibi, also in her 40s, had no water connection simply because she could not afford the connection fee. Thus, she and her daughter-in-law used to spend hours collecting water twice a day.

"Because of the unhygienic environment and poor quality of water, our girls had become pale and weak, they looked liked patients in hospitals. We really had a problem finding suitable matches. But after the availability of safer drinking water, their health is improving and we are now confident about marrying off our daughters before they get too old," she says.