Thursday, August 5, 2021

A New Face of Polygamy: ‘Water Wives’ of Maharashtra

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water wives


The word- Water Wife might remind you of some fairy tale story by Walt Disney with the prince and princess. In the rural area of the village of Denganmal, in western India, the meaning of this word is far from the fairy tale. Due to the lack of water, men in this village are used to having polygamous marriages to ensure that they have sufficient water carriers.

Denganmal is a village with no taps. To have enough drinking water every day, a wife must walk to the far-away wells to fetch the water for the household. Some men have more than one wife because the first wife eventually gets too old to bring water from sources that are far away from their homes.

Bhaagi (L) and Sakhri (2nd from L), wives of Sakharam Bhagat (R) walk to fetch water from a well outside Denganmal village, Maharashtra, India, April 20, 2015. In Denganmal, a village in Maharashtra state, some men take a second or third wife just to make sure their households have enough drinking water. Becoming what are known as "water wives" allows the women, often widows or single mothers, to regain respect in conservative rural India by carrying water from the well quite some distance from the remote village. When the water wife, who does not usually share the marital bed, becomes too old to continue, the husband sometimes takes a third and younger spouse to fetch the water in metal pitchers or makeshift containers. REUTERS/Danish Siddiqui PICTURE 16 OF 29 FOR WIDER IMAGE STORY "WATER WIVES OF MAHARASHTRA"??SEARCH "WATER WIVES" FOR ALL IMAGES - RTX1F2PC

The climatic conditions of the village are difficult to overlook. It is a quite isolated place in a hilly area, far from other villages. The summer months are severe and sometimes cause the well to run dry, and the domestic animals often die out of thirst.

The village only has about 500 inhabitants, and the condition for life is scarce. The houses are fragile, made simply from mud and wood. Reporters of CNN visited this village to report the “water wives” and their living conditions. They met a man, Sakharam Bhagat, who has one of the largest families there. “Bhagat’s modest house is made of mud, supported by a few wooden beams. But it’s one of the biggest huts in the neighborhood,” CNN reported.

water wives


Bhagat has three wives, and the hierarchy of the family is very clearly settled. Society is patriarchal. Therefore, the man will always be the head of the family. The women are mostly as powerful as the men as they have to travel to bring water to their homes. This fact very often goes hand in hand with age. It is an unwritten rule that the man always marries a woman younger than the other wives. The simple reason is that he needs to have youthful energy to help him maintain the household.

Polygamy has existed in the world from the very beginning; however, it was permitted mostly for religious reasons in the last decades. In India, multiple marriages are forbidden by the law. The Muslims in the country are the only exceptions because it is a part of their religion, and it is even a sign of wealth to have more wives. However, in Denganmal, the popular belief is not Islam but Hinduism.

water wives


“I did what I did only because of water,” he explains to CNN the circumstances of his marriages. His oldest wife discloses that there was no option to walk to fetch the water from far well or river in the dry months of the summer. The places were so far away that it might take up to 12 hours, and it was simply impossible with children alone at home. So Bhagat married again and then again. Nowadays, the oldest wife looks after their children while the younger wives are on the way to bring water for their families.

“They get the respect associated with being married women once again. The family eats together, lives together, and we see and hear them laugh together,” CNN writes about the no competitiveness inside the family.

ActionAid India has made a short documentary on Youtube about water wives and their everyday struggles with the drought. In the first half, the oldest woman talks to the younger wives about the jealousy that she felt in the arrival of the younger wife. And assures the younger wife about the normality of her jealous behavior toward the youngest wife. Her speech finishes with the words: “We are a lot like these. Look how peaceful they look.” And she points to the water containers.

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