Labourers lifting sands from Jadukatha river in Sunajgonj. Backdrop: Meghalaya hills upstream.

Minding the ‘water-woes’: empowering women means empowered communities. Reflections from Bangladesh and India

“Where there is a forest there is Khasi people [sic] (Pdeng), as our life (Jingim) depends on forest (Khlaw) and our livelihood on betel leaves (Pathi). Either in Bangladesh or India, where there is a forest there is a Khasi..” These enlightening words belong to Monika Khonglah, an indigenous woman from a small town of Moulvi Bazaar, Sylhyt division, Bangladesh. She further adds, ‘taking care of forest means taking care (sumar) of stone (Shmia), stream (am khar/ wahliar), trees (Twia) and that without stream and water there would be no trees and no trees would mean no Khasi.’ This holistic but relational perspective shared by Monika is indicative of the overarching impact that the imagery of forests has on indigenous identity in the borderlands of the Meghna Basin.

A recently concluded TROSA funded field-based report, which highlights the views of indigenous women and water governance in the Meghna Basin helps to understand what ‘water’ and ‘water woes’ means for these indigenous communities. In other words, water epitomizing their sense of existence with nature and culture together.

In cognizance of the alternate worldviews that indigenous cultures are generally associated with and the material realities that interact with and influence them, the report narrates lived stories of the changing experiences and perceptions of indigenous women. While examining water issues, the report emphasises the existential threats for indigenous communities, especially women,  brought on by the changing social-ecological and spiritual-cultural dynamics.  

With indigenous ways of thinking getting lost, the traditions, philosophy and ways of life that appreciates the relationships between human and non-human actors in nature needs to be acknowledged and recognized. Indigenous wisdom directs us to avoid looking at water in sectoral terms, which is significantly in line with the current changing perspectives in finding better ways of managing water resources equitably. Initiatives like TROSA are advancing this holistic approach to water resources management which puts the right of the riverine communities at the centre of water governance policymaking and everyday practising.

For this to be effective, institutionalizing free, prior and informed consent (FPIC) to protect collective rights and ways of life of Indigenous Peoples and Indigenous Women, is a much-needed action.

Significantly, a regional initiative in South Asia, suggests that supporting an indigenous knowledge platform in the Meghna Basin needs to be reckoned with. Such actions are not only needed to decolonize knowledge but also foster new paradigms in thinking that take into account the interrelationships and interdependency between communities, indigenous knowledge and practices, natural processes and public policy.

As is true in other riverine communities, in the Meghna Basin, indigenous women are the primary water managers. Notably, while most communities are matrilineal and women have more responsibilities, decision-making spaces are primarily dominated by men. As one woman pointed out, “Ka don hi ka jing iapher hapdeng kata” (There are differences between men and women in decision making).  The notion of belongingness and exclusion are instructive of two crucial pathways for women’s engagement - not only as managers but also as equal partners in gendered-water decision making and being.

It is imperative that water governance initiatives in the Ganges Brahmaputra, Meghna (GBM) and Salween basins, should be bolstered with local-level interventions that consolidate informal spaces of community empowerment by facilitating agency and amplifying the voice of women and youth collectives in addition to policy influencing.

Effective communication, through informal consulting (working) groups, can help bring to the fore issues related to women’s security into consideration. This is important, as sustainable policies (for example on eco-tourism) need to be mindful of the local culture, rights and sensibilities,  the absence of which will engender alienation in the long term between ‘insiders’ (as policymakers) and ‘outsiders’ (it was found that water governance initiatives seem to be poorly informed of local perspectives).

Hence, when all sorts of measures are put in place and practice for inclusion of local communities from the planning stage itself, inclusive development often results in a greater social rate of returns to investments (SRRI), emphasized the report.  Moreover, the indigenous people’s journey with nature-culture nexus along with our contemporary attempts to economic mainstreaming especially under Development-induced-Displacement (DID) cannot go separate ways. In addition, representations from every segment of these communities, elder, young, women, men; should form the focus of the development practitioners and planners.

Ultimately, there is a need to not only localise policies but also to foreground them in terms of women’s active participation and representation in water governance decision making processes. In this regard, collating indigenous customary laws and National and International laws can guide what works best for the indigenous communities. Capacity building of indigenous women needs to focus on changing gender stereotypes and roles. Formal and informal spaces of power-sharing and decision-making need to be institutionalised and cultivated, as decision-making on water governance amongst the indigenous communities is centralised and restricted to village level administration –darbar/sabha/punji, the report suggests.

About the authors:
Dr Medha Bisht is a Senior Assistant Professor, Department of International Relations, South Asian University, New Delhi
Mayfereen Lyngdoh Ryntathiang is the President of 'Grassroot', Shillong, Meghalaya.
Pallab Chakma is the Executive Director, Kapaeeng Foundation, Dhaka, Bangladesh
Sarita Sundari Rout is the Women and Youth Coordinator, TROSA, OXFAM.

Views expressed are the authors own.