Prasanta Biswas/ICIMOD

Water rights are women’s rights

Why water rights are women's rights and how better research can deliver both.

Agriculture in India is becoming increasingly reliant upon groundwater and irrigation to increase production amid unpredictable rainfall patterns. Given that women are responsible for producing as much as 80 per cent of food, water rights are tantamount to women's rights.

With some 100 million women working in agriculture, India's food security depends on ensuring that these women have equitable, consistent and convenient access to water that does not reinforce or generate new prejudices and disadvantages. For example, women and girls spend an estimated four hours a day fetching water – time that could be spent on higher-value activities, including education and agribusiness.

Yet, too often, initiatives and projects designed to improve water access and security to increase agricultural productivity oversimplify the needs of women – or miss them entirely.

These missteps might come from good intentions to support smallholder farmers, but are often influenced by the individual biases and preconceptions of those designing projects from afar. Researchers and development practitioners may have an abstract and incomplete understanding of gender inequality, without engaging directly with women and girls and implement projects from the top down without taking into consideration women's practical needs.

This makes gender inequality as much an issue for development researchers and practitioners as it is for their beneficiaries.

The field needs more gender-sensitive research, which includes data disaggregated by gender to allow a greater understanding of gendered needs and strategies throughout the project cycle. That means involving women and girls in the planning and designing phase to embed processes of gender inclusion within the monitoring and evaluation framework. This will help shape innovations – like solar-powered irrigation pumps which do not rely on costly diesel – and training for women farmers to improve water security and women's rights.

But to achieve this, researchers, including social scientists and gender experts, must challenge and correct gender norms and develop gender competencies horizontally across their peers and organisations as well as vertically, in order to avoid unintended consequences and trade-offs.

The first step is to move on from simply equating gender with women as a homogenous population and recognise that gender is one of many factors that intersects with other features such as caste, class and age, which are particularly relevant in India.

The combination of these features can define whether and how women benefit from interventions by NGOs and development organisations to improve water access and rights, whether for irrigation in agriculture, water for sanitation and hygiene or other water needs.

For example, women and girls are disproportionately responsible for fetching water or pumping groundwater across India, and so building nearby check dams to create localised reserves has been shown to reduce the time burden they face by about a third.

But the value of this time saving depends on how it is spent. If the time spent fetching water is replaced by another form of drudgery, then the benefit is negligible. However, if timesaving means young girls can attend school because they are free of the burden of carrying water, then the intervention makes a measurable improvement.

Young women carry pots of water. 
Bishnu Sarangi/Pixabay

From there, researchers can better address – rather than reinforce – social and cultural inequalities as well as meeting economic and ecological goals, rather than addressing only the symptoms of gender inequality.

For example, research into water for sanitation and hygiene has typically been women-centric because of traditional associations between women and domestic health, but often fails to challenge the very norms that create gendered responsibilities in the first place.

One example of this is the tradition in India of passing land ownership to boys and excluding girls from inheritance rights while upholding the custom of marriage dowries for women.

In one well-intended attempt to support social mobility in the Jhansi district of Uttar Pradesh, 80 families with young daughters were given teak tree saplings by a collaborating partner that could eventually be sold for dowries to help secure a better marriage prospect. However, this approach encourages gender dependence by fostering the social ills of the dowry system, while also discouraging women's land and property ownership.

Moreover, providing tree saplings unintentionally created more work for women by requiring them to fetch more water, often from distances of up to two kilometres.

Addressing interconnected cultural, social and economic challenges through a gender lens, then, requires a bottom-up approach that works directly with communities, rather than a top-down approach that fails to recognise the real-life consequences of entrenched gender norms.

The gender influences and research processes that shape land and water-related interventions have been described as a "black box", which is typically a masculine-dominated space in which partners often prioritise environmental goals for watershed projects, relegating social and gender goals.

By better sensitising staff to gender issues and creating a gender balance within research and development teams themselves, it is possible to generate a more gender-sensitive approach from the outset, aligning the results of a bottom-up approach with the broader goals of the project.

Insights into the influence of gender biases and inequality are as important within research for water and development as they are for the most disadvantaged women around the world. Water projects must set off on the right foot if they are to have any hope of empowering women.

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