Setting Sail for India


Evelyn  interviewing Nancy, a female inmate of the Cebu Detention and Rehabilitation Center (CPDRC), a maximum security prison facility in the Philippines.

I have just hopped on board the United for Hope vessel and I am definitely ready to sail to India in my next 3-month internship- though only with my mind and work, as my body will stay in beautiful Munich. Just like United for Hope’s most recent intern, Federica, I am also Italian – there must be something between United for Hope and Italy! I recently graduated from Vienna University with a M.A. degree in Human Rights. I am particularly interested in gender and development issues. These interests developed during my academic and work experiences; the most influential experience was the time I spent in the Philippines working as an intern at the Department of Labour and Employment. Besides the main focus on labour related issues, I was confronted with all the challenges that characterise a developing country. I saw how women are fighting for their sexual and reproductive health rights in a predominately Catholic country, how fishermen struggle to feed their families, how far children have to walk to get to school every morning, what does it mean for a mother to be in prison, and many more struggles.

My first two weeks at United for Hope have been an eye opener on cultural issues which challenged, in particular, my understanding of gender equality vis-à-vis my counterparts in India’s rural villages. Through enriching discussions with Tara and by going through the projects that United for Hope is carrying out, I learned about the gender dimension to the water and sanitation crisis. This aspect often remains in the shadows due to its complexity and related taboo topics. But it is important to note, women struggle the most from the lack of drinking water and adequate sanitation.

In 2010, the UN General Assembly and the Human Rights Council recognised the human right to safe drinking water and sanitation. Together with this the global community committed to reach a series of targets including reducing by half the number of people without access to sanitation. Despite these goals, women’s battle for safe drinking water and sanitation is far from over.

For women, it’s personal

In rural India, people do not have access to safe and private toilets and, while this is an issue for everyone, it disproportionately affects women. Due to cultural practices it is not acceptable for a woman to relieve herself during the day. Therefore, they wait hours for nightfall just to have privacy. This, of course, impacts their health and puts their safety at risk. Women are vulnerable to urinary tract infections, injuries, and sexual assaults.

Women and girls do not need bathrooms only for urination and defecation. They also have a much greater need for privacy and dignity when menstruating. This aspect is rarely discussed and considered since menstruation is still a taboo subject and has negative connotations attached to traditional Indian beliefs. As a direct result, women’s dignity, self-esteem and ability to engage in a wide variety of activities – school, work, and even movement in general –is considerably restricted when they lack access to an appropriate sanitation facility.

Backbreaking and all-consuming

Moreover, women together with girls are mainly responsible for fetching the water for their families. They are the ones responsible for all of the water needed for drinking, washing, cooking, and cleaning. They usually walk long distances, carry heavy burdens, wait for hours and pay exorbitant prices. In Tirmasuhan, the village in which United for Hope is active at the moment, water is available but women have no say with regards to its management. Moreover, even though there is plenty of water it is contaminated and poses many risks to the health of the villagers. United for hope is addressing the issue by providing focused trainings for women empowerment and has launched a “clean drinking water project” which aims at delivering safe drinking water to the villagers.

It’s a Question of Dignity

One can easily derive that water and sanitation for Indian women mean more than we could ever imagine, in means dignity. However, a lack of political power together with the veil of silence that covers this topic gives women and girls little voice to obtain services that would reduce their vulnerability and considerably improve their living conditions. If the assurance of a human right to sanitation is to have any impact, then human dignity – on which the idea of human rights is based – must apply indiscriminately to men and women and cover all aspects of daily life, especially the ones that are considered taboo. It is with this concern, United for Hope, through its holistic approach aims at challenging this critical situation through many of its projects.

The wind is at my back and the sun upon my face. I am eagerly looking forward to contributing to United for Hope’s day-to-day work, and at the same time gain valuable experience that will surely help me in my future professional aspirations.

PS: What about you? Do you have any thought you want to share related to gender & sanitation issues? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

– Evelyn for United for Hope