Clean Water Brings Equality for Nepali Women, Minorities

Article | 22 March 2010

In Nepal, an ADB-funded program is overcoming caste and gender prejudices, while providing wells and sanitation to villages.

Banshkor, Nepal - Parvati Tiwari has a secret weapon in her fight for clean water and equality for disadvantaged people in Nepal. It's her right hand.

The usual greeting between Nepalis is a simple word, namaste (literally, "I bow to you"), said with palms pressed together. Women never touch men who are not close relatives. But Tiwari, 45, is having none of that.

Anyone who meets the head of the Water Users and Sanitation Committee in this village in the southwest of the country gets a hearty handshake, often to their surprise.

"I threw off my headscarf and learned how to shake hands when I started out on this work of mine. We women have to change things and this is how I'm doing it," she proclaims, smiling.

Members of Tiwari's committee, men and women both, nod as she speaks, preparing for another discussion of the new water system.

But Parvati is talking about much more than just a handshake, sanitation, and water. She is talking about inclusion.

"An oxcart has two wheels," she says. "That's men and women. It has a yoke, an axle, a seat. Those are other castes and communities. And they all have to be working for the cart to be useful to us. You can't exclude any of them."

In villages like Banshkor across Nepal, an ADB-funded program is drilling wells and providing good sanitation in villages. Mainly though, the emphasis is on involving every single caste, religious group, and tribe in a given location, and both genders too. The government-run project even employs sociologists to profile communities and advise on how to include everyone.

Heading that team is social scientist Mishri Prasad Shrestha. "If we don't get the whole community involved in this, then it's not worth it," Shrestha says. "It's not enough to provide water without enabling inclusion."

Nepal's caste system has allowed certain groups to thrive while others languished. The Community Based Water Supply and Sanitation Project aims to change that paradigm within participating villages.

About 40 kilometers from Banskor is the village of Rajpur, a scattering of hamlets on a riverine plain. The community is a mix of castes and ethnic groups, including indigenous Tharus and Dalits at the low end of the Hindu caste system, Brahmins and Chhetris higher up, and a few Muslim families.

One of 55 iron hand pumps installed under the project sits outside the home of Bishnu Bista, 21. Just a few years ago, it would be unthinkable for a high caste woman like Bishnu to share a water pump with lower caste neighbors. But in Rajpur, she says, everyone who is part of the water and sanitation scheme has to share. She doesn't mind.

"Everyone comes and uses this tap," Bishnu says, of the pump in front of her home. "We built it together; we make decisions on the program together; so naturally we share the water."

Shanta Bahadur B.K. contributed labor to construct the pumps and toilets. He is a Dalit and says community relations have vastly improved since the project started.

"We all dug this well, then carried the cement," says Shanta, 45, of his neighbors. "We get along, and working together has helped."

Maintaining the new pumps is a constant topic of discussion at regular meetings of the water users' committee. Members sit in a circle under a thatch-roofed bus shelter near a crossroads.

Treasurer Mina K.C. is telling the group that they need to raise money for a maintenance fund, and not just to depend on handouts from government.

Men listen respectfully as she talks, not common in more patriarchal parts of Nepal. Mina attributes the new tolerance in her community to the clean water program.

"Access to water used to be a source of tension and even conflict," she says. "High castes would stop low castes from using easy sources and women walked for miles to get water. It caused resentment, gossip, even violence. That's not happening to anyone involved in this program. Not anymore."