Why don’t the waters of Unichai wet the grounds of Nediyamadhu?

Then, Lord Shiva easily held Ganga in his locks. Today the people of Nediyamadhu still search for the keys to unlock the Ganga”

Sagar the powerful king of India made a horse sacrifice named ‘AshwamedhaYagya’ to declare his supremacy to the gods. King of heaven Indra who became jealous of this kidnapped the horse, tying it in an ashram of a Sage named Kapil who was meditating. When Sagar went looking for his and found it in the ashram, he assaulted the sage assuming him to be the thief. When the Sage woke up from his trance, his anger arose and he started destroying the sons of Sagar. Sagar’s grandson Anshuman pleaded for forgiveness, and the Sage ordered him to bring down the sacred river Ganga from heaven to purify the souls of the Sage and his ancestors so they could attain enlightenment.

When King Dilip son of king Anshuman failed to appease Lord Brahma [according to Hindu religion, Brahma is the creator god], in getting help to bring the river Ganga to earth, the task was passed on to his son Bhagiratha who was able convince Brahma, who ordered the river to descent to earth. River Ganga became furious with the decision, seeing it as an insult on her, and she decided she will destroy the earth while descending from heaven. As warned and advised by Brahma, Bhagiratha beseeched Lord Shiva [one of the principal gods of Hindu religion, believed to be the supreme being, the destroyer of evil and the transformer within the Hindu trinity that also includes Brahma and Vishnu], the only one who could withstand the power of river Ganga so that the earth will be strong enough to hold her. Shiva agreed. But Ganga was arrogant and tried pushing Shiva to the core of the earth. Yet mighty Shiva easily held Ganga in his matted locks, and Shiva’s tethering was so strong that Ganga became helpless.

Access to water had always been a day dream to the people living in the west of Manmunai, in Batticaloa, a District in the East of Sri Lanka. Since decades, the deprived and unfortunate women and children from the villages have to walk for long, along silent pathways in search of water for their household purposes. The astonishing fact here is that there are pipelines that run through these villages to distribute water to other areas. Clear water from a prominently known dam called the ‘Unichai’ flows through these lines to distribute water to other areas in the district. When the village children see water splashing out from the leaks of the pipeline, they shout in celebration and await another day to witness the same.

Manmunai West Divisional Secretariat division is divided into 24 Villages called the ‘Grama Niladhari’ divisions, and spreads over an area of 292.65 Sq. Km. The total population of this Manmunai West division is 30,635 which consists of 8640 families (Source: Manmunai West Divisional Secretariat statistical records, 2017). Batticaloa district, an in particular the Manmunai West division, has suffered severely from a three decade long armed conflict. Public water and sanitation infrastructure were almost non-existent, and relevant government systems were not functioning during the conflict period. Though the government, international donors, and national organizations have invested significantly in infrastructure since the end of the conflict in 2009, considerable gaps still remain, concerning the dearth of safe drinking water, as well as hygienic and functional sanitation facilities in both, schools and communities.

“I have spent many sleepless nights without water to quench my thirst’’ mentioned  Saranya , a young pregnant mother of 27, who lives with her 4½ years old son in the village of Nediyamadhu. Her husband works as a labourer in the city of Colombo. Being a victim of the past ethnic conflict she was a recipient of a single room house from the Government.

Nediyamadhu is a Grama Niladhari division with 230 houses and a total population of 808 individuals, which includes 377 women. Out of the families living in the 230 houses, only 6 families have their own water wells dug inside their premises. The balance 224 families suffer without clean drinking water, as the area they live in is rocky and has no reliable underground water source. Hence they hesitate to dig their own water wells, and instead walk to the common well that is owned by a temple to access clean water. Even though the National Water Supply and Drainage Board has constructed water pipelines in Manmunai West Division, they are reluctant to supply a water line to the people of Nediyamadhu village, since the villagers are below the poverty line, and might not pay their bills on time. The purified ‘Unichai’ dam waters pass through these poor villages, to supply to the urban parts of Batticaloa.

The little house of Saranya is near to a thick jungle, which contains high risk of elephant attacks. Human Elephant Conflict is a common and serious issue faced by both villagers living adjacent to the forests, as well as elephants who rove in search of food. Even with electric fences around, Saranya and her son were not safe in their home. Apart from the fear of animal confrontations, they also faced a serious lack of clean water, and Saranya had to walk for an hour, and twice daily to fetch a pot of clean water.

The journey is very dangerous in the evenings; by the time we return with water, it already dark everywhere. We women have to walk the isolated road every day. It is only when we reach our houses that our hearts begin to beat normal. It is not only the wild animals that we are afraid of, but also robbers and evil-minded men sneak out in this area, being aware of us. We women do not have anything that could be robbed except our respect, dignity and chastity” explained Saranya sadly.

The women of the village cross a canal which is used to release water for agriculture, balancing their steps on two palm trunks that were placed across the canal.  Young girls, elderly women, pregnant women, everyone had to use this path alone to reach to the destination where they could collect clean water. Saranya continued, “even the women who had male folks at home did not get their support; our culture expects women to carry water; but what is wrong if men carry water sometimes? When we ask them, they say it will degrade their prestige.”

Gender roles that prevail in the society, limit women in taking decisions, and in choosing what they wish to and wish not to do. In the household women play diverse roles that are mostly assigned to them by the dominance. Traditions and cultures of the patriarchal societies expect women to perform certain roles and duties, while prohibiting men from doing same.

Most of the spouses of these women are away from their homes due to employment. Therefore the daily routine tasks both in, and out of the house is managed by the women folks alone. This being time consuming and tiring for one person, their work time spreads till late hours of the evening, when they walk to fetch water, and become victims of danger. Both animal attacks and sexual harassment and sometimes even assaults, have become factors of high risk for these women, creating a negative and critical impact on the young girls and girl children specially.

The post-war era has become another intruding pathway for different kinds of micro credit companies to enter these villages. Representatives from these companies, who visit homes selling their products, also involve in abusing women sexually, especially when they are confronted in isolated places when traveling to fetch water. “They watch us closely; and the usual times we go to collect water; we can neither send our young girls to collect water, nor are we able to leave our young children at home alone, because these strangers are now targeting the young too. This village is witnessing many child abuse incidents during these past years” stated Ms. Paramjothy, a member of the Maha Women Society (Divisional Women Federation).

Manmunai West division is the second highest in terms of sexual abuse, gender based violence, exploitation, and suicide, among the fourteen divisions of the district. According to the divisional statistical data of 2017, the reported cases on sexual abuse in the area is 1, physical abuse 4, emotional abuse 5 and cases on children due to negligence 9. The District Child Protection Officer stated that there was a slight increase in numbers during 2017 than in the previous year. The District Child Protection Unit (DCPU) is the Government structure which handles Children related issues in the District and reports to the National Child Protection Authority. Responsive measures are taken by this institution for the reported issues.

The increase in the abuse cases reported to the DCPU in 2017 is a result of unsafe living conditions.  In order to protect their children, mothers send their children to their neighbouring house to be taken care of when going to collect water. Instances have befallen these vulnerable women and children, when the neighbors themselves had become the abusers

It has always been a hard time for these deprived women and children of this village to get access to clean water whenever they required for it. They have to limit the consumption of water, and use it sparingly due to the long distanced walks. For this hardship not to continue the women have begun to approach different stakeholders; but to date no change has taken place.

Yet these women are continuing to search for the keys to unlock the Ganga. These women could break the locks of Ganga; they could break the traditions and the hindrances to bring water to their village; to bring change in their lives.

When Lord Shiva controlled Ganga to the earth, locking her, she was alone. So she was controlled by a man. Today, women need not to be locked by powers that control them. Together women can overcome these controlling systems, and awake together to break the locks that keep them silent, unheard, weak and victimized. The long silence of women should never to be continued.

Nilakshy Thavarajah  |  Sri Lanka