A myth of the West holds that women are too delicate to do manual labor, everything from frontline military service to opening a door. Men who believe it should try kneading bread dough for 15 minutes and see how their arms feel.
Although often overlooked, traditional women’s work includes some of the heaviest lifting around the world; in the US, the nation’s mostly-female nurses and other healthcare workers maneuver around increasingly obese patients with no limits on maximum weight lifting (unlike in the male-dominated and more closely-regulated manufacturing and industrial professions); Morocco’s porteadoras trundle massive loads of export goods back and forth across the border in Ceuta, Spain; and nearly everywhere, women carry the burden of fetching and carrying liters of drinking water for their families.
From sub-Saharan Africa to Mongolia, three out of four homes without running water depend on women to bridge the plumbing gap. They walk miles to fill up buckets and jerricans, according to this 2011 UN report. In some parts of India, water-carrying is so much “women’s work” that it is common practice for men to recruit water carriers to haul heavy buckets to and from distant wells by marrying them.
For years, men in the small, arid village of Denganmal have taken on second wives (and even third wives, when the second wears out) called “water wives” to get the job done. ”I had to have someone to bring us water, and marrying again was the only option,” Denganmal resident Sakharam Bhagat tells Reuters, of the time his first wife fell ill.
Denganmal is in the state of Maharashtra, where an estimated 19,000 villages ran dry in 2014, according to one government survey. Water shortages are common but deadly; in rural areas across India, more than 500 people died last week from heatstroke and dehydration. And while polygamy here is technically illegal, it’s more dependable than cloud-seeding, a tactic recently introduced by desperate local officials to make up for the meager monsoon. The gendered logic embedded within this survival tactic—that lifting and carrying is, in fact, women’s work—should come as no surprise.
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