When data obscures women’s stories

A woman in a green dress pours water from a silver pot into a yellow plastic container. Her arm and the pot obscure her face.

A woman fetches water from a well in India. Credit: Akella Srinivas Ramalingaswami.

According to official data, 89 percent of India has access to an improved sanitation service. But, if we are only counting the number of toilets built in a country as a measure of progress toward Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 6, clean water and sanitation for all, we are ignoring how many of these toilets are actually being used for the intended purpose. We also risk overlooking the reality of what daily life looks like for women and girls in places where water is limited and the knock-on effects on access to education.

In many rural places in India, existing toilets are not always hooked up to pipes, and existing pipes do not necessarily have consistent water. This means women, especially in rural, mountainous areas, are still walking miles to fetch water. When water is scarce or difficult to procure, it is often conserved for drinking and other purposes, rather than being used to operate a toilet.

When I spoke to a woman in Loharpada, a tribal village in Maharashtra, India, she said: “Why would I put the water I have earned hard in a toilet? We do go out for the toilet, because I don’t have water in my yard. I will not throw a bucket of water which I brought on my head from a well from 3 km away [into the toilet].”

Many of the households use these toilets as storage rooms for firewood. The whole region of Harsul, a village in Northern Maharashtra, has similar examples. This region is hilly and hard to reach. There are no roads, no pipelines, and little infrastructure. While some local governments have provided taps and pipelines, high elevation and scarce groundwater result in limited water availability—especially in the summer. Despite efforts toward pipes and toilets, girls and women are still walking to fetch water. 

My research shows that, on average, a rural woman carries up to 22,000 kilograms of water in a year, while they walk at least 2,100 kilometers (on average) per year for water. This makes me frustrated when I look at the numbers we are tracking to measure progress towards the goals. Because our SDG indicators do not take this into account, the numbers are misleading. The data suggests that we are making progress towards achieving the goals, when in reality, we have just developed buildings or infrastructure, without considering the needs of the region or its stakeholders – in this case, women.

When official data misses the full story, it’s important to empower people to broadcast their experiences. Data can give people the power to exercise their rights. Knowing how to create and use data gives people autonomy and agency to control their lives. This lessens appropriation in official narratives: The few who hold power in society cannot fool the masses when data skills are widely-understood by people in their own language.

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The impact of water on girls’ futures

In the tribal villages of Maharashtra, India, I’ve been seeking to uncover reasons why many girls drop out of school after the eighth grade. In particular, I’ve been looking into the multi-faceted, structural reasons for these dropouts. SDG 4, the goal of quality and equitable education for all, is interlinked with most of the other goals, including SDG 6, clean water and sanitation, SDG 5, gender equality, and SDG 1, alleviation of poverty. During my research, I’ve tried to dig into women’s daily routines and explore how patriarchy and climate change combined are impacting marginalized women and girls.  While the Indian Government promotes two big nationwide schemes: the “Swachh Bharat Mission” and “Har ghar Jal yojana”, i.e “Clean India Mission” and “Water for All” respectively, it has failed to incorporate women’s perspectives in implementing or planning these initiatives. 

As the impacts of climate change compound and India’s water crisis deepens, the distances women are walking are set to increase. Every summer, this region faces drought despite having some of the highest levels of rainfall in the area. In Devdongra, I was shocked to see a woman working on a well for four hours, just to fill two pots of water. She told me that they have to wait four days to get their turn to collect water, and there’s so little available that they can’t even get enough for a day. 

While I’m concerned about long-term sources of water, I’m also worried about how this is affecting women’s opportunities. In India, it is seen as the duty of girls to fetch water and make sure that their family has enough for the household.

Girls often have to miss classes while walking for water. If a girl misses her bus to high school, there’s often no other affordable transport option. Most of the girls then skip school and stay home to get water. This is how water impacts education, but it also takes a toll on women’s health. This level of physical labor causes body pains, along with increased issues during the menstrual cycle. Many older women have knee issues and arthritis. I have even seen pregnant women walking for water. 

While men are typically not involved in sourcing or carrying water, they are still involved in making decisions about it. Through my research, I’ve found that even when village water committees are supposedly made up of 50 percent women, often this is only on paper, and women have no real say. The patriarchal control on women’s mobility often means that women are still not involved in decision-making, only as labor. 

The power of inclusive data

That’s where data skills and democratization of data plays a big role. When we equip women with knowledge about how indicators are developed, data is collected, and data stories are framed, they are able to ask important questions and demand transparency and accountability around data from decision-makers. 

A few months ago, I posted a video on social media tagging district-level officers with the data (mentioned above) I had collected by giving rural women access to a step-counting app. I had been asking for meetings with the development officers for months, but I received a call within a day of posting online. The local government immediately started working to supply water tanks to these villagers. Tanks were there before we even reached the site. 

Though they may not yet have had the courage to challenge the system, the women who expressed their needs through this data started raising their voices to shape the government’s priorities. By speaking on a video posted to social media, these women forced the system to look at them.

What all of us working in the data for development community can do is look at our framework of indicators carefully, to make sure we are not missing any vital perspectives. We can ask people who are directly impacted by data decisions to share their perspectives and help to shape this data. And we can work to increase people’s skills to understand and advocate for their needs with data. This can help ensure that data is inclusive and representative, and that we are building a sustainable future. 

In the long-run, it’s important to look at how access to water and sanitation (SDG 6) intersects with other development challenges to reinforce gender imbalances, especially for women from communities facing historic marginalization. Otherwise, while we struggle to ensure access to water, we’re also ignoring the impact this has on gender equality, health, and education for all. 

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Fast forward to 1:00:18 to hear Mayuri’s speech last week at the Festival de Datos:

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