Leading the way in women and water

She is a “townie” born and bred in Colombo but the moment she saw the majesty of the Kala Wewa, standing atop an earth mound at Kattiyawa close to Anuradhapura, “spilling” amidst its misty splendour, she felt she “had come home”.

While that was what triggered her passion for the conservation of water, her early dealings with the men and women, the salt of the earth in the Dry Zone who toiled to cultivate the land kept her focused on the wide range of issues, as varied as sanitation and sand-mining, linked to water.

And as Sri Lanka prepares to host SACOSAN IV (South Asian Conference on Sanitation) from April 4-7, it is her name that comes to mind. Kusum Athukorala is inextricably linked to the “trinity” of water-sanitation-women, not only in this country but at any world fora.

The credentials and qualifications for this position enjoyed by this 56-year-old “water professional” are long and too numerous to mention. But suffice it to say that she is a Member of the First Steering Committee for the International Global Water Partnership; Founder/Core Group Member of SaciWATERS (South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Studies), Hyderabad, India; Founder/Chair NetWork of Women Water Professionals (NetWwater), Sri Lanka; Chair of Sri Lanka Water Partnership (affiliate of Global Water Partnership); Life-Member of the International Water Academy based in Norway; Co-Chair of the Gender Advisory Group for the World Water Development Report; and Steering Committee Member for PR and Communications of Women for Water Partnership, the Hague, Netherlands and WfWP Delegate to the World Water Council.

Kusum remembers the early days of being elected to the Steering Committee of the Global Water Partnership with a twinkle in her eyes. “Although women have always played a major role not only in collecting water but also using it, there were only two women on the Steering Committee in 1995 when these issues were discussed,” recalls Kusum, herself from Sri Lanka and Sue Milner from the United Kingdom. “We (women) were short in number on the Steering Committee but made up quite a lot by raising hell.” The duo succeeded in changing statutes to ensure equal representation of women.

Equally at home trudging through the muddy fields in rural Sri Lanka or attending world water fora and mingling with eminent people including Nobel Prize winners and the Crown Prince of the Netherlands, Prince William Alexander, according to Kusum her professional life has been a list of happy chances. “I was at the right place at the right time.” While being noted and identified with water issues, the early days were also when some would look at her patronizingly or accuse her of promoting western feminism locally.

“Look at the reality,” challenges Kusum, “what is ‘western’ about the woman in an urban area who stands in the queue at the crack of dawn to collect a small pot of water for her family to drink or the woman in a village who has to walk several kms in the harsh sun to bring back a buli of water. What of the children who wake up at 3 a.m. to help their mothers with water collection and are too sleepy in the morning to go to school.”

Pockets of no sanitation are terrible for women’s dignity and comfort, she stresses. Kusum should know because she has had first-hand experience about “toilet issues” when as a young researcher she had to stay in Pindeniya.

She digresses from her own life to disclose that according to a recent announcement by the Water Supply and Drainage Ministry for SACOSAN, there are one million children without toilets in their schools. Many of these children don’t drink water because they don’t have a toilet to go to. What would be the cumulative effect on their health? Isn’t it shocking that some of these schools have nicely-painted walls and a computer but no usable toilet, asks Kusum, adding that in some instances the attention of the authorities to a simple but timely repair of a toilet would be the answer.

Kusum a former student of the father of street drama, Gamini Haththotuwegama, is now using this technique to promote water and sanitation. Last December, at the annual meeting of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership instead of the Daha-ata Sanniya, she suggested to a school group that they perform the ‘wesikeli sanniya’.

At Pindeniya all those years ago, Kusum was researching the ‘Status of Women in Sri Lanka’ led by Prof. Swarna Jayaweera who later went on to set up the Centre for Women’s Research (CENWOR). She lived in a village home where the toilet had no door. Leeli kaallak thibba, she laughs, explaining that there was a piece of plank which had to be kept as a door every time she used the toilet.

There was a simple remedy, she points out. The son of that household who was working for a grassroots non-governmental organization and been abroad for training could have used a hammer and nails and nailed the plank as a door. But it was never thought of. The experience in Pindeniya “marked me for life”, fuelling a long-lasting and abiding interest in social studies revolving around women and water.

As a slip of a schoolgirl at Good Shepherd Convent, Kotahena,however, Kusum was a bookworm, reading absolutely anything that she could lay her hands on. Her father was working at the Advertising Department of Lake House and her mother who had been a Lecturer at the Bolawalana Teacher Training College in Negombo, who later became a schoolteacher, was the “role model” who made available all the reading material the daughter would voraciously devour.

It was an unwritten code that anything to do with the children’s (herself and her younger brother and sister) education, their mother would handle. “My father treated her as the ‘Minister of Education’ in our home,” says Kusum, going back in time to her childhood.

So it was a natural progression for young Kusum “nose always in a book” to want to study English Literature. Her father didn’t like the idea of residential university life, what with a girl jumping out of an upper-floor window of the Peradeniya University for fear of the infamous “iti pareekshanaya” (candle experiment), so it was to Vidyalankara (now Kelaniya University) that Kusum went in 1973, on her mother’s urging to pursue a degree in English Literature, Classics and French. It was with an English Honours degree secured under the tutelage of literary greats such Prof. Ashley Halpe and Prof. D.C.R.A. Goonetilleke that she emerged from Vidyalankara, the only university with English Special at that time.

Looking back, Kusum is amazed at the enormous impact the grounding in English Literature has had on what she would undertake. It was not only English Literature that she learnt under these eminent men of letters but also social history, for which she cites the simple example of Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy.

From being a university student, she moved to teaching firstly at Peradeniya University and then at Sri Jayewardenepura, taking over as the Head of Department of the English Language Teaching Unit. It was around 1991 that she realized that teaching was not her calling.

The pull was field research, says Kusum, and she wanted to grapple with problems. She knew she could do it and do it well. She could establish a good rapport, particularly in a focused group with humble people.

She began her research-career at IIMI in the early 1990s concentrating on women in irrigation systems and by 1993 she was the only one who had done work on gender and irrigation.

The memories of that first “women and water” research are poignant for Kusum who followed 90 families at the three irrigation schemes of Raja Ela at Gampola, Rajangane at Anuradhapura and Mahaweli System H in the Galnewa-Tambuttegama area for two years with three other women researchers.

“Enormous were the insights,” says Kusum and it was not only the women who confided in her but also the men. They opened up their humble homes to her and her assistants, sharing their simple meals with them. Some of them she already knew, those in Mahaweli System H, among whom she had conducted her first research in the early 1980s when she was still a greenhorn.

Many were those who attempted to dissuade her with scare stories of the terrible things that could happen to a woman researcher in irrigation systems, with most farmers being drunk. “However, we women researchers integrated very well with the farmers,” says Kusum, pointing out that not only did they treat her with respect but they also looked after her and even confided in her. Ada reta kandiya kapanna yanne, some would tell her, explaining that they would be stealing water that very night.

She also got an “intimate” look into the lives of the Mahaweli System H farming families………how the men worked the land during Maha to grow paddy but the women laboured over chillie cultivations during Yala. “As women took on a greater role in the fields during Yala, the men would compensate by helping them in the kitchen, scrape coconut etc,” says Kusum, but sheepishly urge her, “Pothe liyaganne epa” (Don’t write it in your book).

Kusum’s research on the role of women in irrigation systems became her launching pad into the international arena of water management in 1996, when she sent a paper on ‘Women and Water’ to the Stockholm Water Symposium and was accepted. It was the first such paper they had received from a woman.

While there was much encouragement from senior water professionals there were also negative comments such as: Why are you trying to change the traditional ways in which our rural society operates?

“My research only reflects a social dynamic. But there are instances when rural society needs to be guided in the right direction,” she says, pointing out that “traditionally” babies and young children are taken to the fields during the time they are being sprayed with pesticides and weedicides. “That’s because there is no one at home for the mothers to leave the children behind. Isn’t it better to have a crèche in such a situation rather than exposing the children to poisoning,” she asks, the accumulation of which could have a serious impact.

The transition from Literature to rural development, along the way she secured an M.Sc in Managing Rural Change from Imperial College, UK, posed no obstacles for her. The characters that she had read in literary tomes, just came alive in real life and she encountered them all over the country.

The viral hepatitis epidemic in Gampola in 2007 reminded Kusum of ‘An Enemy of the People’ by Henrik Ibsen in which the town’s water supply gets polluted while water transfers out of agriculture which she would study in Thuruwila she had first read about at university in ‘Fontamara’ by Ignazio Silone.

Even so many years after her early research, Kusum keeps going back to her former research sites and was thrilled when she recently heard that mahogany saplings she had gifted to each family in 1996 had been sold recently by some to find money for their daughters’ weddings.

This news, however, is tinged with sadness as memories of a woman who had committed suicide come flooding in. It was during the time of their research that she got to know this woman who was committed to her family but had a weakness for men, says Kusum. She had eloped with some man, but had been brought back home and the so-far tolerant husband beat her up publicly. Unable to bear the humiliation she took her own life. “I still see in my mind’s eye this woman combing her daughter’s hair,” says Kusum sadly.

The return trips to the village, however, show Kusum the changes over the years – the wattle-and-daub homes now built with brick. Children in farming families who have abandoned the fields to pursue higher education including medicine, leaving only the older generation to till the land.

Now that internationally in the water sector, the principle of 50% men and 50% women is better accepted, Kusum has set herself a new goal – to research a burning issue in the North Central Province.

The scourge of renal failure and its impact on farming families — when the men-farmers get affected there come de facto female-headed households. How do they manage and what are their coping strategies, will be Kusum’s focus, leaving the medical part to scientists and doctors.
This will be the latest challenge this multi-tasking multifaceted consultant hopes to undertake.

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