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Mathew Presents Seminar on How Water Shapes Labor and Education for Dalit Women

Dr. Sera Mathew presented a seminar on "Gendered Vulnerabilities: How Water Shapes Education and Labor for Dalit Women in Kerala, India," on Monday, February 20, at the Reed College of Media Innovation Center. The seminar, which was cohosted by the Institute of Water Security and Science, West Virginia University (WVU) Media Innovation Center and the WVU College of Education and Human Services, provided information about how spatial marginality shapes Dalit women’s and girl’s education in Kerala, India.

Dr. Sera Mathew

“Dalit literally means downtrodden,” said Mathew. “Dalit are considered “untouchables” and are the lowest member in traditional Indian caste system.”

According to Mathew, a lack of water translates into an exacerbation of gendered labor and thus a lack of engagement with education for Dalit women and girls in Kerala, which has the highest rate of female literacy in India but also suffers from a high rate of discrimination and domestic violence.

“My research was focused on how Dalit women navigate the caste system in Kerala – water was secondary but became a major part of my thesis,” she said. “Dalit women invest a lot of time and energy gathering water from wells, rivers and rainfall, as well as tankers provided by the state, although the tankers are not always available and often run out of water. This creates a cultural valuation of water by the Dalit community.”

Mathew’s field work included interviews with three generations of women, as well as participatory photography" or photovoice with the young women to capture their perspectives.

A Dalit woman collects rainwater (Photo by Sera Mathew).

“It was interesting to see the articulations of gendered burden by participants,” she said. “Their photos were of streams, rivers and rain barrels, as well as one photo of a traditional home in Kerala that the young woman indicated probably had running water that household took for granted.

“When water is provided, it’s considered an entitlement. There are blind spots of development in Kerala that influence who is at the margin and who is at the center of this development,” Mathew said. “However, the Dalit women aren’t voiceless. They offer everyday resistance. One study participant went to the government offices every day to request access to water. Many Dalit women also ask the men in their families to help influence the state government.

Mathew indicated that there are definitely parallels between her study and poverty as with the recent water crisis in West Virginia.

“Policy change regarding water and its availability leaves communities like the Dalit deficit,” she said. “Is the strategic marginalization of Dalit women a strategy of the state to maintain them in a state of abjection? The big question consider is why do Dalit communities continue to struggle for basic amenities in present day Kerala.”

Sera Mathew is a graduate from the WVU College of Education and Human Services. She is trained in education, public health, and development studies with a focus on gender issues in the global context.