The Water Wives of India Live Only to Fetch Water for Their Families

Men in drought-stricken Indian villages often take a second or even a third wife whose sole purpose is only to bring water to the family. They make several long trips to distant water sources every single day, carrying large vats of water on their heads.

Life is hard in dry villages, like Denganmal, 150 km from Mumbai. Husbands are busy farming and tending to the animals, while the women do house chores and raise the children. However, someone still needs to bring water from sources often several kilometers away, for about 8 months out of a year, when there is no rainfall in the area. That’s why having two or even three wives is not at all uncommon in these parts. The men only have children with their first wives, while the other’s sole purpose is to provide water for the family, in exchange for a roof over their heads and the social status of wife. They are paaniwaali bais, water wives.


Photo: USAID

Finding a woman willing to take on the burden of water wife is no easy affair. In India, no parent wants their daughter to marry a man in a drought-stricken area, especially if they themselves live in irrigated parts of the country.  So a man from a drought-hit village will marry a girl from another drought-hit village, or from his own. These women understand the hardships of drought and will do what is necessary to provide water. Still, not all of them accept this role, so water wives are usually women who have been abandoned by their former husbands or widows. While the first wife must be an unmarried woman from the same cast, there are no eligibility restrictions for water wives.

Apart from their main purpose, water wives must agree to take orders from the first wife, whose role is to take care of the children, milking the cows and cooking. They also must accept that they are not entitled to sharing the property and family assets, and cannot share the man’s bed as long as the first wife is still alive.


Photo: The Water Project

On any given day, a water wife in Denganmal will fetch over 100 liters of water from a source located 3 kilometers away, making several trips during the day and when it’s too hot, at night. It’s not uncommon to see a number of women walking for miles in temperatures of above 40 degrees Celsius, with huge pots of aluminium perched on their heads. However, doing this every day, regardless of weather conditions is bound to take its toll on anybody. Locals report that water wives eventually start to go bald, become stunned and unable to bear children.

Young water wives are more productive, so many men often take a third wife, after they notice the first water wife isn’t fetching as much water as she used to.


Photo: video caption

A water tanker with a capacity of 1,000 liters comes into Denganmal every five days, and the queues formed around it often get ugly. Water wives know that every few extra liters thy can get then means one less arduous trip to the distant water source, so they try to secure as much of it as possible then. Because of this, women often pull each others’ hair, abuse and even beat each other when the tanker comes.

Women in Denganmal hope that at least their daughters will have an easier life, if the Government finally lays pipes from the nearby dam to their village. “We cannot do it anymore,”water wife Tuki told Open Magazine, speaking on behalf of Denganmal’s women, “We are tired of fetching water.”


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