We want justice (and water)

All Woman

We want justice (and water)


Monday, September 09, 2019

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THERE are numerous paintings that depict beautifully toned Jamaican women either washing by the riverside or transporting pails of water on their heads. Why? Because traditionally our women have been tasked with ensuring that the laundry is done, the meals are prepared, the children are taken care of, and the home is sanitary — come hell or no water.

Women are therefore placed at a distinct disadvantage when faced with a lack of water, as they have been disadvantaged historically whenever there was a shortage of any valuable resource. In present day Jamaica, the ongoing drought coupled with road works has caused a displacement of this resource, and though lack of sufficient water in households across Jamaica affects everyone, not everyone is equally affected, as it is women and girls who suffer the most.

The women in rural communities that are yet to have an established piped-water network have found ways to make it work over the years, but the extended drought-like conditions, road works and water rationing that have diminished the water supply in the Corporate Area and St Catherine have left many urban women helpless.

Ann-Marie Walker sighed heavily as she spoke with All Woman. The 30-year-old mother of two who resides on Huntsdene Avenue off Molynes Road in St Andrew said it is a disgrace what her family has to go through each month that there is no steady supply of water at home.

“It's not nice to be on day one of your cycle and not have enough water to flush your toilet every time you use it,” she said. “It is unbelievable that there is not more attention being paid to this crisis, because it's one thing for a man to pee in the backyard and tidy up himself every other day, but how do they expect women to live?

“How do we take care of our children, our newborns, and how do we maintain proper hygiene?” she beseeched.

Another woman living in the vicinity of Cassia Park, who works at a call centre in the Corporate Area, said she calls in sick to work on the days her flow is the heaviest, as the bathrooms are closed each time there is no water in the building —which is very often.

“There are mainly women working at my call centre, and every time the water is gone they lock up the female bathrooms, because it's only a matter of time before in there gets messy and everyone starts complaining about it,” she said. “At home, I have to be so stingy with the water I have. I can't cook proper meals for my child, and I can't tell when was the last time I got to wash my hair, because it takes so much water,” she lamented.

Gender experts agree that women are more at risk than men when there is lack of access to water and sanitation facilities — it affects their health, education, productivity and ability to thrive in familial relationships.

“You don't know humility until you have to run down a water truck, decide whether your children have to go to school this day or that, wonder who will get running belly next, and hoping that they wont because you can't flush the toilet, and just overall feeling hot and dirty and miserable,” said Michelle Palmer, a St Catherine mother of three.

“While I'm not affected by water lockoffs because of the roadwork, we recently lost water for eight days because of a pump issue and I almost lost my sanity, and I can just imagine the plight off those who have been without the utility for months.”

One of these women disclosed that she is waiting for the nightmare to be over.

“This situation puts women in a hard place because we are expected to keep our houses clean; we are expected to keep ourselves clean; we are expected to keep our children clean. And when water is dearer than oil and we cannot afford to pay a truck to come by, we can't fulfil our roles properly. I'm holding my breath waiting for this to be over,” she said.

Human rights, environment, and climate change activist Emma Lewis said the water crisis currently being experienced in sections of Jamaica highlights gender inequality in access to resources.

“Women are often those who need to find resources to maintain their family. Just as middle class woman might go to the supermarket; less privileged women in rural societies have to find food and water for their household, in whatever way they can. In many developing countries, women have to walk long distances for water,” she said.

“In many countries, such as ours, the traditional role of a woman is still cleaning the house, washing clothes,” she continued. “Without water it may increase the risk of disease due to unsanitary conditions at home. Sanitation is absolutely critical and poor sanitation is responsible for many infectious diseases. Also, most farmers globally are women. They need water for their crops and animals.”

Lewis added that water is critical for childcare and personal care, which make women more vulnerable in a drought.

“Childcare is largely the woman's responsibility. Even for older children — how can they get ready for school and have clean uniforms to wear if there is no water?” the activist questioned. “And due to women and girls' physical make-up, they are more vulnerable if there is a lack of water, especially during menstrual periods and pregnancies.”

But the deficiencies caused by a lack of water don't end in the homes of these women. The problems trickle down to every facet of the family, and ultimately the society.

“Sex is not even up for discussion if there is no water in the pipe to wash it off,” a Moresham Avenue, St Andrew woman sneered, admitting that her love life has also been going through a drought because of the lack of amenities. “Nobody wants another sweaty body touching them. We're both just very hot and miserable, and almost always in a bad mood.”

Not only are the dry pipes causing a breakdown in women's relationships and marriages, but their finances are also drying up.

Tannice Ellis is a single mother from a Waltham Gardens, St Andrew address who says the constantly increasing cost of water is putting pressure on her already shallow pockets.

“I now rely solely on the trucked water, because no water has come in the pipe for months. I have two barrels and a 4,000 gallon tank, and every time I need them filled, I have to pay at least $7,000. That might be twice per month sometimes. On top of that, I have to pay the water bill so that if the water ever returns, I will have some.”

Wainella Isaacs, a Caribbean PhD student in the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering at the University of South Florida, conducted a case study in Barbados on opportunities to mainstream gender in water and wastewater infrastructure projects.

“Incorporating gender differences in climate projects is smart economics,” Isaacs contends. “Climate change and its impacts are not gender-neutral, and water infrastructure projects developed to mitigate and/or adapt to climate change impacts will have different degrees of gender dimensions, based on the social and economic contexts within which populations are embedded.”

And until life returns to some semblance of normality, a plea from Palmer:

“Access to water is a basic human right,” she said. “I'd want our politicians to understand that development is not just about completing legacy projects to satisfy egos, but that real people are affected, and months and months should not have to go by, protests shouldn't have to happen for them to see the need to consider all subsections of the population in the development process.”

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