Two issues were central for us this month: the need to challenge gender inequality and understanding the various dimensions and value of water. International Women’s Day (8 March) and World Water Day (22 March) provided us the opportunity to pause and consider these two important issues as individuals, as an institution, and collectively as the HKH region. While these two issues are usually marked and celebrated independently, for understandable reasons, they are also inextricably linked, especially in the context of our region. More importantly, both these issues are also central for our happiness, security, and wellbeing.
It is no secret that the rapid climatic, socioeconomic, and epidemiological changes that characterize our “new normal” continue to place an unequal burden on women. At the household and community levels, women in the HKH often find themselves taking the lead not just in their homes and farms but also in public life – doing business and interacting with government and other formalized institutions – especially since a majority of men, particularly young men, from our hills and mountains continue to migrate to cities and other countries for work.
There is also a strong link between women and water in our region. The responsibility for collecting, managing, and effectively using water for consumption, cooking, and cleaning at the household level has disproportionately fallen on women, historically. As such, women have, and continue to be, primary custodians of our water resources. However, what we are beginning to see is that the challenge and drudgery of this important responsibility is increasing.
Essential water sources like springs, which have served many mountain communities for generations, have started drying up. Sources like streams and rivers are becoming more polluted and unreliable. Such realities have forced women to travel even further in search of clean water. News of entire villages relocating as a result of water scarcity is becoming disturbingly more common in our region. Recent research and climate models show that such trends are likely to increase in the future. This, together with the projected increase in inter-seasonal water variability, is likely to compound the challenges. In other words, our dry seasons are likely to see much deeper and longer dry spells, while on the other hand, there is going to be too much water in seasons when water is easily available.
Both too little and too much water are major problems which directly affect our wellbeing. Droughts and floods are both major disasters which can lead to loss of lives and livelihoods, especially in our mountain regions where the majority of the people are still very much dependent on agriculture. Unfortunately, what we also know is water-related disasters in our region affect and impact women disproportionately.
What is then clear is that we will not be able to fully resolve water- or gender-related issues in the HKH without addressing their intersection with one another. We will be unable to understand the full value of water in the HKH without taking into consideration the gendered dimension to it. Similarly, addressing the status of women in the HKH would be incomplete without a full appreciation of both the positive and negative roles that water plays in their daily lives.
The theme for this year’s International Women’s Day was “Choose to Challenge”; and for World Water Day we all asked ourselves, “What is the value of water?” Taking them together, let’s choose to challenge any notion that gender and water can be separated, and instead let us start addressing the issues of both gender and water from the point of intersection of these fields. Only by making this the starting point will we really be able to get to the heart of both these major challenges in our region, and towards greater security and wellbeing of us all.