Kusum Athukorala interview: gender and water in Sri Lanka and the importance of young water professionals


An interview with Kusum Athukorala at the 2017 Asia International Water Week AIWW. Husum a senior advisor and chair of the Sri Lanka Water Partnership. She discusses women in irrigation, the need for a gendered perspective in water, sustainable financing, and about opportunities and challenges available to young water professionals.

Kusum identifies with being a boundary-crosser. She has a degree in English from the University of Kelaniya in Sri Lanka and an MSc in Managing Rural Change from Imperial College, where she also worked as a lecturer.

Her worldview changed when she worked as a research assistant for the Status of Women survey in Sri Lanka, where she visited villages and assessed their needs. The sanitation there was very poor — the toilets did not have lockable doors — only a plank to put across

Kusum became interested in the water sector after doing a study on irrigation rehabilitation schemes and understanding the work that women were doing in irrigation and water. She entered the water industry through this research and is passionate about menstrual hygiene management. She won the ‘Women in Water 2012’ award, presented by the International Water Association.

Interview Topics

  • About Kusum Athukorala’s and why she believes people work water sector needs a gendered lens
  • The different water needs of women and men
  • Understanding the ‘democracy of water governance’ and its phases
  • Effective water-sensitive investment to support education, empowerment, and career development of women and girls.
  • About the Sri Lankan Network of Women Water Professionals and their agenda
  • How quotas may be used to improve women’s participation in the water sector
  • The urgent need for improved catchment management in Sri Lanka

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What sparked your interest in the water sector and in gender differences in relation to water? How might other people get involved?

I think you might call me a ‘boundary crosser’. I certainly didn’t start off in the water sector. My first job was in English literature. I taught for 12 years in the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies. However, my first job with the Status of Women Survey in Sri Lanka totally coloured my worldview.

I had come from a rather secluded background and had not been living in villages nor working with the community. My task in this job was to go to those places, as a research assistant. I had to use a toilet without a door! I think that has given me what they call a ‘sanitation fixation’! And every time that I had to use that toilet, I would be cursing and saying, “This doesn’t have to be like this”.

Later, even though working in a totally different field, I continued to work as a social science researcher and I think it was my study of irrigation rehabilitation schemes that first opened my eyes to the work that women are doing in irrigation and in the water sector.

I saw what happens in the field, and that women sometimes work 18 hours per day in irrigation areas and this was not written in any report that I had read — because women simply were not mentioned there. They were the invisible reality of irrigation.

That was the beginning. Of course, I had a lot to learn about irrigation and a lot to learn about the internal workings of irrigation systems and I started questioning issues like who has access and control of resources? Who actually does the work, and what kind of work, and when? I think that I have always been driven by curiosity and the need to understand fully.

Again, this information was not in the reports. It made me realise that development decisions are taken often based on a very inadequate understanding of the context.

I think this is a good way to begin and if I were to advise other people starting out, I’d say: simply go out and take a situation and try to view it through a different lens, a gendered lens. If you are a woman, try and view it from the male perspective and vice versa, or from the viewpoint of a person with a disability. Look at access or working conditions and other issues that affect that perspective and go from there.

Are people becoming better at understanding how to meet the needs of both sexes in relation to water, and might that help in achieving SDG 5 and 6?

If we are trying to operationalise the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), we need to understand the context for our decisions and actions. I think it is a big mistake for us to focus on each individual SDG on their own. We have to look at them in the overall context because there are so many interlinkages, there are so many connectors. For a long time now, I have seen that we have to have an integrated perspective, especially for water. We have to have an integrated water resource management perspective.

The first paper I wrote for gender and water, for the Stockholm Water Symposium in 1996, was I think the first — or one of the first — papers they had had on gender and water. It was a comparison of two water-related organisations in Sri Lanka and I found that they were developing in two different directions.

One, the National Water Supply and Drainage Board, was becoming more aware of communities — which is the first step towards understanding that communities comprise both men and women, with different needs — they do not have to work in the same way; they don’t think the same way; and they don’t have the same demands on time.

I think this awareness is very good and I see this as an organisation which has been on a learning curve. Unless you study labour-participation, and unless you study access, it is very difficult to show why women need to be taken as a different group and why their differential needs need to be incorporated into development planning.

Very often people are not gender-sensitive — and it is not because they have anything bad about them but just because they do not know.

It is, I think, up to us researchers and activists to try and highlight the reality, so that whatever the development dollars we get into our system, they go to — and hit — the right target.

Actually, globally, we have had an enormous amount of support coming into gender and water, but there have been ups and downs. Sometimes you might get what I call a gender backlash. You might get people saying, “OK you know this is getting to be boring”.

It is a fact that society is a continuum and it is ever-changing. So the needs of communities also change. For instance, when I did these studies I had differentiated the communities into high-income, middle-income and low-income. I found as people progress they become upwardly mobile: their incomes change and their attitudes change. Women who would have been field workers, tilling and weeding, will stop doing certain things when they have a better source of income, such as from off-farm management, off-farm employment. When you become upwardly mobile, you have more disposable income and you might see yourself as a manager — and not want to be seen doing physical work. You might be hiring other people instead. It’s an ever-changing world.

Have any initiatives been extremely successful in Sri Lanka in addressing gender equity and inclusion? Could they have relevance elsewhere in Asia?

I think we have seen a success story in the community-based organisations in Sri Lanka that look after small rural water-supply systems.

When this first started, women were so desperate to have water that they would even pawn their gold jewellery, their chains, to raise the money so the community could cover the cost of 10% of the project. They were very strongly involved in management.

That is changing now that the organisations have quite a lot more money in the kitty and are becoming better established. One change is that men now are more interested in taking over the reins because there is a disposable income. In my studies, I have found that women are getting slowly pushed out of some of these systems.

So I think that if we were to replicate such activity for other parts of Asia and the Pacific, we need to understand that there are phases and that our strategy needs to change to fit every phase.

Essentially, we found it was the women who were willing to take the lead, face the risk and turn resources into cash because they saw the potential benefit that could come from these sorts of community-ownership approaches. Now that there is less risk, with the projects yielding direct financial output and income and status, men are interested in becoming involved.

I think the lesson from this is that in setting up a community-based organisation to manage a water project (these projects are always funded by a grant or by an agency), we have to have a critical mass of gender-sensitive professionals, men and women. Both men and women must be involved, and they have to be educated. They must understand that what is needed is ‘democracy of governance’, and that it is a cross-cutting issue for everybody.

I think it also means that we have to spend a lot of time and energy empowering, educating and capacity-building, not only women and men in the field but also the young water professionals in our water agencies. The young professionals have to understand the context: that the approach should not be wholly technocentric. They must understand that men and women form communities and within the communities, they have differential needs. We all have to understand that this is a continuum which is going to be changing.

We have to be sensitive. We have to have our antennae out.

Can you give us some examples where there has been, or could be, water-sensitive investment in women and girls?

Wherever people work, there are always some who are sensitive or open to issues, and I think I struck lucky when I started working in this field because I got involved through school sanitation.

We found that in school sanitation one of the major reasons why toilets stopped functioning was that menstrual napkins were being dumped into them. Then we found that girls were not going to school for three to four days a month when they were menstruating, and that is an enormous loss for women’s education, a cause that I have always believed in.

I found it a little difficult to sell this as an investment project, but in the end, the Asian Development Bank (ADB) gave us our first break as an extension of a school sanitation activity.

As an aside, I’ll tell you it was quite funny because in Sri Lanka the word menstrual hygiene management, arthava svasthata, is very unknown. Even teachers may not know it. But there is a similar-sounding word which is arthika which is economics. So the first time that we sent out letters, it wasn’t the arthava people who came it; was the arthika people — economics teachers, who turned up. The semantics of development is quite interesting!

This was a new thing then. When we started talking with people in the community and teachers, we found that, in general, menstrual hygiene management was discussed in relation to sex education, and sex education is not taught very well because there is very traditional thinking behind it. Teachers gloss through it, and this leaves children wanting to get more information and wanting to experiment. It leads to lots of problems.

My target is to keep the girl children in school and to give them the kind of facilities that they need in this difficult time to ensure that they are in school. When a girl is menstruating and there is no toilet, there is no way that she can wait for six, seven, eight hours. So she doesn’t come to school, and that is a longterm loss to the country. That is why investment in suitable sanitation for schools matters so much.

Another example of investment

We have been quite successful in engaging with the private sector as investors, and again we have found some unlikely partners.

One of the largest garment factories in Sri Lanka, a big conglomerate called Brandix Lanka PLC — it works for the big international garment brands — supported climate change adaptation training for community-based women who are officers of those organisations. It’s quite a long away from the company’s core business and I really respect Brandix for this reason. They were ready to invest in the intangibles, women’s empowerment. I think that they felt it is important that information should be given to people who need it.

It is much more common for private sector companies to invest in tangibles: such as a well, a toilet, a hospital, something you can see and touch. By contrast, how do you measure women’s empowerment? You can’t just say, “you have had five days of training, ladies, so you are now empowered!”.

Personally, I believe in a citizen science approach. I think that we should give information to people even if they are not our traditional target group. We owe it to them, especially in these days when disasters are piling one on top of the other. We need people to be informed, and sometimes in their responses to disasters, we also may learn a lot. I would like development professionals to go into situations with an open mind, ready to learn; not just expecting to teach.

I think we need to instil the principle of lifelong learning. This kind of work divides naturally into two streams: one is school programs where you teach and work with school children, and the other is the work that you do with young water professionals who are probably somebody below 35 in the traditional water sector.

Investment in careers

In fact, recently a young water professional group in an area called Badulla, Uva Province, has run a very interesting program. The area has tremendous water issues. The young water professionals did a survey which also highlighted their own issues: what they see as constraints and challenges. I remember that they made specific reference to the young women water professionals’ issues because that is the time when they are getting married, having children, having to cope with being a young mother with relatively young children. They may not have the support systems of nannies and grannies and they may have to balance their career with domestic demands. Very often it is the woman professionals career that suffers. She may not take on activities leading to promotions if it means leaving her home base.

There should be systems where they can come back into the system because otherwise, we have lost the entire investment we made in these women. I think the water sector needs to understand that supporting young women water professionals is a return on your investment. If she has spent maybe from age 25 to age 35 working for an organisation, that’s ten years of experience which you can’t replicate. If the organisation loses this person, that investment is lost. This is possibly part of the reason why globally we have only about 17% of women in water sector management.

I remember once a very senior Malaysian administrator telling me that he balanced the attrition of women professionals by sending the engineer husbands with the women engineers when they were on transfer to an area out of the town. That way, there would be that continuation of family life and the woman water professional would not drop out.

It is so important to have such gender sensitive administrators.

How did the Network of Women Water Professionals evolve in Sri Lanka?

When we started this Network of Women Water Professionals in Sri Lanka it was to bring together women to share issues, share challenges and it was also for us to be a conduit for women in the community who had no voice: to ensure that their voice is heard and will be responded to.

When you go to a village you don’t find women popping up and saying, “I want this. This pipe is in the wrong place. Why are you putting a well where there is no water?”. No. You have to be very sensitive in how you do your research. Probably you will have to meet the men and women separately, and identify the issues, and then see whether you can have a consensus-building activity. Asian women come from fairly secluded environments. I’ve written about this quite a bit.

Therefore, Asian women water professionals are the natural conduit for accessing women’s voices in Asian communities. We can go where men can’t go. Women will tell us things that they will not tell male professionals.

This has worked to some extent. There has been progress. At least people now understand that there must be gender representation. Definitely, there are changes from country to country and even organisation to organisation. I think that the water supply agencies find it easier to make that gender connection because women and water are kind of synonymous: women have been water carriers if you take it in the most difficult sense of the word. However, in situations such as irrigation and agriculture, women’s participation and contribution are much more difficult to map.

There is still some way to go. Sometimes you think you have achieved quite a bit and then you go into a meeting where you find an array of black suits and one woman standing there …

Could quotas help attract funding for women’s organisations in the water sector?

I think that setting quotas is always useful. For instance, in Norway, they wanted women politicians and they set a quota. After a while, they have found that they don’t need a quota any more because people have become used to women getting involved. They have got used to having women politicians.

In Sri Lanka, we have disastrously low women’s representation in politics, in spite of numerous other healthy development indices. That needs pushing. I think the government wants to take up the issue now. I’m very happy that they’re going to do it.

A woman professional or a woman politician does not only stand because she’s a woman but because there is a certain significant activity where she can make useful input, especially in these conservative Asian societies. I think that mentoring and coaching would add a very important element which is not currently in use by Asian professionals.

However, it is important that quotas do not lead to people putting good money into dumb projects. You do have to ensure the women you are working with will run effective start-up businesses, which they will really work their way through, write good proposals, etc. That is where the coaching and mentoring is important.

Do you have any burning water issues you would like to draw attention to?

For me, the burning issue is that I am quite appalled that what we are doing to our water sources. We are not looking after catchments.

We are moving from one disaster to another and all of them are water-related. Sri Lanka is having a two-year drought at one end, and massive flooding at the other end, and there have been landslides in-between.

We, as men and women, and as male and female water professionals, we have to understand that if our country is suffering these major water-based disasters, we are doing something wrong with our water catchments. We are simply not looking after them.

I feel very strongly that we must draw attention to our catchment management, and rectify it.

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Gender and water

During her research on irrigation schemes, Kusum realized the role of women in irrigation, the hours they work in fields, more than 18 hours a day during harvest season) but little none of this contribution was in any official reports. She described this as the invisible reality of irrigation and believes development decisions are still being taken without an adequate understanding of the context.

Kusum presented a paper on gender and water at the Stockholm Water Symposium in 1996 was one of the first on the topic.  Kusum acknowledges the global support the topic of gender and water has received since she presented this paper in 1996 but admits that the journey had its ups & downs, in the form of gender backlash. She reiterates the fact that societies are continuously changing and as they progress, people’s incomes and attitudes change. She gives the example of women who might start filling and weeding a field and go into off-field employment in keeping with livelihood needs in an ever-changing world.

Kusum says community-based organizations (CBOs) have been successful in looking after small, rural water supply systems in Sri Lanka. Women have been intensely engaged as they are the ones who had to bear the burden of providing domestic water needs. She gives the example of women pawning their jewellery to raise equity to contribute to water projects and being heavily involved in their management.

However, with the advent of CBO’s, women in some cases have been pushed out as men are interested in taking over due to their available disposable income. Kusum strongly believes that CBO’s should have gender-sensitive professionals — both men and women who know that gender issues are not just women’s issues. She also believes that young water professionals in water agencies must be empowered and educated to understand the context of community issues better, differential needs and that it is a continuum.

Water-sensitive investments in women and girls

Kusum referred to several water-related investments in women and girls in the water sector in Sri Lanka including:

  • the ADB investing in menstrual hygiene activities as part of school sanitation programs, which she adds is highly significant as not many people understand the word for menstrual hygiene management in Sri Lanka and that it is glossed over and not discussed due to traditional conservatism. Kusum explains how this is a loss to the country, as girls who are not provided with adequate toilet facilities during menstruation have higher absenteeism and often do not proceed with their education.
  • She also described partnerships with the private sector, singling out a partnership with Brandix Lanka PLC, who invested in providing climate change adaptation training for women working in CBOs, despite it being outside of their core business, as there was a need. She says this is quite remarkable for the private sector to be in investing in ‘intangibles’ like women’s empowerment.
  • Kusum talks spoke about a Young Water Professionals group in Badulla, Uva Province, where were the challenges and constraints that face women professionals in terms of career development and how this may be resolved.


Interview quotes

This interview and related content was originally part of the Kini Interview Series. Kini is a retired brand of the AWP and IWCAN.

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