Gender and water – always challenge the obvious

Posted by , posted on Friday March 4 2016(1 year ago)

This post is written in response to: What should we be asking to understand gender dynamics in irrigation?

For the policy-makers, researchers, water professionals and development practitioners interested to consider and address gender when designing, studying or implementing agricultural water management interventions, there are many practical tools and guidelines on what relevant questions to ask.

irrigation bengal

Groundwater irrigation in West BengalPhoto Credit: IWMI comms

Most of these guidelines propose collecting data on gendered roles with a focus on division of labour, access to resources and decision-making. These domains have been considered the pillars of empowerment. These tools have also often implicitly promoted institutional models, such as individuated water rights for women or women’s participation in water user organizations. Yet the effects of these institutional models often tend towards tokenism or are even detrimental to well-being or disempowering (Ahlers; Cleaver;  Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen; Sultana- b).

I would like here to highlight a few additional issues to consider that will help moving beyond a narrow focus on visible forms of agency and the uncritical promotion of institutional panaceas.

1. How do men and women from different social groups feel about water access, use and management and what do they value?

Be open to challenge the obvious, using on-the ground observations from the localities where you are working.  What seems rational, normal or beneficial to a Western male water professional or a South Asian woman development practitioner, might be at odds with the conceptions of a Western African woman (see also Zwarteveen). For instance, in some places, fetching water, even though physically hard, might bring emotional comfort by being the only opportunity for women to socialise with others (Sultana- a). Encouraging women’s participation in water committees to ‘modernise’ and empower women might be at odds with how women view their own modernity and lead to women renegotiating their participation in unexpected ways (O’ Reilly).  All in all, water users might have complex preferences that cannot be captured by a cost-benefit analysis but depend on dynamic and locally specific social values and relationships (Cleaver).

2. How do pre-existing informal water institutions and non-water institutions, social and power relationships affect water interventions or programmes?

Agricultural water management interventions have often led to unsustainable or unexpected outcomes. A major reason is that they are often designed and implemented as if operating in a vacuum – or when the context is considered, only formal water institutions are seen as relevant. Yet in most cases, water management has already been governed, prior to the intervention, by a set of, sometimes informal, institutions, norms and values, which themselves reflect broader social and power relationships. Ignoring the latter, e.g. local rules on decision-making related to wealth and status, norms on gender mobility, existing social conflicts within the community, etc, might lead policy-makers and water professionals to miss out critical issues. Examining power distribution and social relationships beyond the water realm is therefore a critical first step for all water and development interventions.

This post was originally published in the Water, Land and Ecosystems thrive blog 

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