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The Mothers Fighting for Clean Water

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Bangladesh
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Helvetas
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The groundwater on Bangladesh's coastlands is becoming saline. Rising sea levels are to blame, and the population is suffering. Four years ago, mothers got together and became politically active. Numerous villages now have safer drinking water.

Right after Sathi Rani turned 13 she was forced to get married and had to drop out of school to move to her husband's village. "But I continued learning, sometimes with the help of other children," says Sathi. Even back then, the now 42-year-old woman showed the determination that decades later led her to become the deputy speaker of the Morrelganj Mothers' Parliament. Mothers' parliaments are women's groups that make demands of the relevant authorities to ensure that there is safe drinking water and good sanitation available in their villages.

Sathi's house is surrounded by greenery and ponds. But the water is salty and dangerous to drink. With climate change, sea levels are rising and saltwater is penetrating further and further into the land, making the groundwater undrinkable. People suffer from diarrhea, inflammation, skin diseases and high blood pressure. Saltwater also causes kidney failure and endangers pregnant women and their babies. "We have to walk far to find fresh water. The risk of being harassed on the way is high," Sathi says. At the same time, husbands accuse their wives of being away too long and not bringing back enough water. "We had to do something!"

Access to safe water: a human right

For 15 years, Helvetas has been helping poor families in the coastal region of southwestern Bangladesh cope with the dramatic consequences of climate change – primarily through rainwater tanks and sand filter systems, but also by training local service providers and advisors on hygiene issues. Thanks to the financial support of numerous donors and the SDC, and together with a local organization, the affected women and men are also learning to fight for their human right to water and sanitation, which is the responsibility of the local authorities. A first step was the creation of village health groups to address the water issue: "Sometimes families are simply too poor to install a rainwater tank or build a toilet. In these cases, the group has helped," Sathi explains.

Five years ago, the project came up with the idea of establishing a mothers' parliament in each of the three districts it is active in to advocate for the right to drinking water at the political level. More than 100 village health groups elected nine representatives per district, all women. The women had little or no experience with public speaking, but all had a clear idea of what had to be done for the most vulnerable in their communities, because they themselves were among the most vulnerable.

Persistence pays off

"Our first case was about funding a toilet for a particularly poor family. The authorities said they had no money for it. But we knew that wasn't true," Sathi says. The project got local governments involved and helped them make their financial plans publicly available and discuss them with villagers. The mothers learned about political institutions, processes and responsibilities, in addition to practical matters of how to read budgets, write petitions and talk to officials. After all the training, one lesson stood out as their most important learning: not to give up.

"We kept going to the municipality and showing the people in charge that there was money for the toilet," Sathi recalls. And they eventually succeeded. It was the first of many battles. Some were tough, such as the construction of a solar sand filter pump in a pond in Sathi's neighboring village. The women had to advocate for two years before the infrastructure was finally built. Now it provides 2,500 families with safe water.

The mothers had to fight for the filter on several fronts. The associated pond was on public land, but it was used by a local entrepreneur for fish farming. The man could not be convinced by the women to yield the source of his profitable business, so a delegation attended public hearings to urge local authorities to intervene. “They asked us to provide evidence that the pond was on public land, so we looked for the required documents,” recounts Sathi. The fish farmer was an additional obstacle. “We met him privately, but it did not work. So we organized some community meetings where people told him how urgent it was to have drinking water. He still had doubts,” continues Sathi. “He asked, ‘How are you going to convince the government?’ We said, ‘Stay with us, and you’ll see.’” To finally gain his support they had to find the courage to confront him with the question: “What’s more important for you, your profit or the health of your community?” Today, the fish farmer is a member of the committee that maintains and manages the pond with its solar sand filter pump.

The struggle at home

To effectively advocate for change, the housewives and mothers had to earn the respect of the villagers and authorities. But the biggest challenge they faced was in their own homes. "My inlaws would scold me," Sathi recalls. "Once I came home from a meeting after 5 p.m. and my husband wouldn't let me into the house." That has since changed, she says, and her husband has become a key supporter.

Since 2018, the Morrelganj Mothers' Parliament has pushed through the funding and construction of six sand filtration systems, 355 toilets and 76 rainwater tanks, giving 14,000 women and men the chance to improve their livelihoods. Authorities in the three districts where the mothers lobby have markedly increased budget spending on drinking water and sanitation.

At the end of 2021, the Mother’s Parliament of Morrelganj gathered in a classroom and each member took turns presenting the issue they wanted to advocate for. “In three villages, 680 students have no toilet at school, and girls are suffering the most,” said one. “If the government does not build embankments, our homes will continue to be under water following each monsoon,” remarked another. The vice chairman of the subdistrict sat at the back of the room, listening. Finally, she agreed to work for the embankments – knowing full well that the persistent women in front of her would be vigilant in ensuring that any commitments made were fulfilled.

Franca Roiatti is Helvetas' Communications Advisor based in Bangladesh.