Sultana discusses intersection of water, gender, citizenship

Farhana Sultana, Associate Professor of Geography at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs spoke yesterday about the importance of gender and class issues when developing water infrastructure.

Department of Political Science Lecturer Nancy Gleason introduced Sultana and explained the significance of the multidisciplinary event.

The event fell between last week’s International Women’s Day and next week’s World Water Day, which Sultana said was perfect timing. As a geologist, geographer and academic, Sultana has approached issues from an interdisciplinary perspective herself.

“Complex issues require complex analysis,” she said. “These kinds of multidisciplinary situations and understandings are really important given the crises we’re seeing globally – whether it’s financial, environmental or political – and we can’t really make sense of a lot of the issues that are going on if we’re still using old tools.”

This approach is especially important when considering issues of water access, particularly in the developing world, Sultana explained.

“Water complicates social processes,” she said. “I think it kind of seeps through everything, the social, the economic, the political, the ecological, technological, cultural and spiritual [aspects of life]. Water is the lens through which I understand social processes and the complex treatment of the environmental actions.”

Despite water’s critical importance in sustaining human life, one billion people lack continuous access to safe water sources, Sultana said. Recent UN actions, including a 2010 resolution, have identified improving water access as a critical step in the development process.

“The reason why [the UN resolution] was so important was because it was seen as a win for social justice movements,” she said. “We need to figure out why we have so many people without water. It is absolutely unforgiveable, when you can wage wars and you can have multimillionaires and send people to the moon, that people are dying – a child dies every four seconds from lack of water.”

Discussions about water access can also bring up questions about government, structure and citizenship, Sultana said.

“These discourses around the right to water, they really open up and foster other sets of conversations,” she said. “It pries open broader discussions about democracy. Why is there no water? Who is making these decisions? And it opens up conversations about citizenship. What kinds of citizens are we talking about? Who is a citizen and who isn’t?”

Water is also about health and well-being, which intersects with gender and class issues, Sultana said.

“It’s very much a gender issue,” she said. “Unless you have a tap that you can turn on, someone will have to go fetch water for you and it will usually be your mom or your grandmother or your aunt or your sister. These are the kinds of gender divisions of labor that are almost global.”

This gender gap is especially apparent in lower classes, Sultana explained.

“What we’re seeing is that increasingly girl children are being held back from going to school because they have to fetch water,” she said. “A lot of these women are also the cheap labor force of the international clothing industry. They do have to go to work, but they can’t because they have to fulfill their duties of being a good mother or a good wife … Mothers have to make impossible choices: Do I not get water and leave the kids to drink the dirty water?”

This gender gap is particularly evident in the Korail slum, which is in Bangladesh’s capital city Dhaka, where Sultana did research. The illegal slum was built on a lake in one of the richest neighborhoods, but it lacks access to clean water. 

Some of these illegal means include tapping into existing water pipes and paying exorbitant rates to the water businessmen, or a water “mafia,” that are over 100 times the rate middle class citizens pay. This water stealing and contamination of legitimate water sources upsets the middle class, but Sultana explained that the classes do not work together.

“The middle class and wealthy women feel entitled to protest because they’re bill paying consumers but their brethren don’t have any water at all,” she said. “There’s this weird lack of cross-class analysis. Aren’t you the one that is complaining that your part-time maid is wearing dirty clothing because she doesn’t have any water?”

While crime currently plays a major role in water access problems, government actions could be a solution, according to Sultana.

“It might be a good idea to formalize those connections in the slums for one, the revenue connection and two to contain outbreaks within the system,” she said. “[With water infrastructure] they have better quality control.”

The event finished with questions and answers, during which Sultana explained the importance of religion in water governance and emphasized the connection between water and citizenship.

“The very poor are saying the same thing as the people at the UN,” she said. “Mobilizing this rights talk also enables a sense of inclusive democracy where the poor can even dream of having a voice in water governance and therefore realize the potential of being seen as citizens … Claims to water are actually claims to citizenship by the urban poor.”

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