Mainstreaming gender in participatory irrigation management: Why does empowerment matter?

Bridging the gender divide in Participatory Irrigation Management
22 May 2024
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Woman member of water user association is giving fish feed to a community pond in West Midnapore in West Bengal (Image: Tanmoy Bhaduri/IWMI)
Woman member of water user association is giving fish feed to a community pond in West Midnapore in West Bengal (Image: Tanmoy Bhaduri/IWMI)

Women play a central role in providing, managing, and safeguarding water. Yet, the waterscapes across the world are distinctly gendered in that productive use of water gets ascribed to men while reproductive use gets ascribed to women. That is, drinking water and sanitation are considered a woman’s domain, while irrigation is regarded as a man’s domain.

Given that in the contemporary landscape of irrigation management, many countries are implementing self-governance of irrigation systems by farmers, such gendered perceptions ought to have long-term implications. Lack of involvement in technocratic decision-making or financial functions of the Water Users Associations (WUAs), lack of inclusion of women’s voices in framing irrigation policies and programmes, etc., are the major challenges reported by the research studies.

Relevance of empowering women in the context of Participatory Irrigation Management

International Women’s Day 2024 called for investing in women to accelerate progress. In the context of participatory irrigation management (PIM), this must not only be targeted towards achieving agricultural efficiency but also promote the empowerment of women farmers. The latter does not only involve merely enlisting the women as members of WUA or calling them for meetings but also enabling them to make informed choices for functioning as potential farmers.

Their self-evaluations regarding their own potential to contribute towards various activities of the WUA and their perceptions regarding any appreciation in their status or power as a result of participation do matter in motivating them to bridge the gender divide in PIM and achieve specific project goals.

Thus, the women’s own understanding and perceptions matter for sustainable project outcomes. Hence, it is of utmost importance that the institutional reforms in water governance be backed by a paradigm shift in understanding ‘community participation’ wherein a sense of self-efficacy, collective awareness, and women’s sense of inclusion and entitlement are considered as equally valuable dimensions. 

Of negotiations and resistances

Recognising the critical significance of this paradigm shift, the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) formulated a study aimed at piloting, validating and showcasing the use of combining remote sensing-based data (water accounting approaches) with socio-economic, gender, empowerment, and PIM to understand the impact of investments in the irrigation sector by the West Bengal Accelerated Development of Minor Irrigation Project (WBADMIP), Government of West Bengal in India. The Australian Water Partnership funded this study.

The study revealed that women’s participation in WUAs is layered. In some of the WUAs, the women hold specific positions within the core governing committees of the WUAs; in several WUAs, they do not hold such positions but actively participate in meetings, crop planning, trainings, etc., while in many WUAs, their participation is minimal.

Here we focus on the evidence emerging from the first two categories of WUAs to understand how the women farmers managed to negotiate and resist the gender divide in community participation in irrigation management. The burden of domestic chores, inadequate education and social skills, a lack of motivation as avid farmers, etc. are some of the major perceived challenges encountered by women in PIM.

During the fieldwork in West Bengal, it was noted that the heavy burden of domestic chores is a major hurdle; however, considerable evidence also emerged where many women seem to be happily embracing the triple burden of work—reproductive, productive, and community management of irrigation—especially in places where they found themselves meaningfully involved and accepted within the association.

For instance, in the WUAs in South 24 Parganas, the meetings were held in the afternoons or evenings as per the convenience of the women members. Consequently, they enthusiastically participated in meetings, training, etc. In some WUAs, the women also expressed keen interest in participating, provided these were organised at a time convenient for them. “We will definitely attend trainings. But we must be informed beforehand so that we can complete our household chores,” said women farmers from Khatul, Hugli.

Most of the key persons observed that it was an extremely challenging task to involve women during the initial days of WUA, and it was through repeated appeals and continuous negotiations that they managed to bring women to the WUA meetings. This is primarily because traditional gender roles define household chores as women’s work, while managing productive work outside the house and all associated functions such as handling finances, taking decisions, etc. are ascribed to men.

Women also faced resistance from their families. During the focus group discussions (FGDs), the women mentioned that gradually, with increased availability of water and women’s involvement in agriculture and allied activities, as household income increased, the attitudes of the family members changed towards women’s participation in WUA. Since then, women have felt motivated to attend meetings and trainings organised by the WUA.

Contrary to the perception that only men are avid farmers, the study notes that once women are meaningfully involved in the activities of the WUA, they tend to exhibit a remarkable proclivity towards undertaking agriculture in an enterprising manner. They extensively spoke about their future plans and desire to learn new skills. “We are saving some money from our ongoing ventures. From those savings, we want to buy more fish or saplings of flowering plants and build our own farms in the future. We also want to rear honeybees,” said women farmers from Haripur, South 24 Parganas.

Lack of freedom of mobility and limited access to public spaces are a few of the other major challenges that constrain women from participating fully in the WUAs. However, the present fieldwork reveals that those who actively got involved in various WUA activities actually became more spatially confident. This was significantly noted in South 24 Parganas and Kesiadoba in Bankura. In these places, they freely accessed public spaces, not only during the day but also at night.

“We women have even worked at night. When we cultivated giant prawns, we used to stay at night near the water detention structures. It is a deserted area, you know. There is a fear of theft. We have to guard our motor pump and other equipment as well,” adds a woman farmer from Srinarayanpur.

Most of the women also mentioned that since the formation of the WUAs, their mobility in the public space increased, they started participating in meetings and trainings, and they felt confident about visiting banks and interacting with the officials there. Thus, their social skills improved to a large extent. “Now our social interactions have increased a lot. We are even free to go out at 9 or 10 in the night. Our husbands do not object because they know that we are going out for a purpose,” said a woman farmer from Pancharul, Howrah.

This evidence provides an overview as to how and when women farmers are able to resist and negotiate the gender divides in PIM. In turn, they themselves have gained considerable financial independence in most villages and are contributing towards family income, increased savings, improved nutrition, and better education for children.

“We no longer ask for money from our husbands. By selling vegetables, we get some cash on hand, which we keep aside. We spend that money on our children’s education,” said a woman farmer from Hugli. Another woman farmer from Matidundra, Purulia, stated, “Now we are getting better quality seeds through the WUA. The yield of rice has increased as a result. Previously, if our total paddy output was sold for 10 thousand rupees, now we are getting 35 to 40 thousand rupees. With this surplus cash, we have done a lot of work and also built our pucca house." 

At the level of the WUA, the proactive involvement of women also yielded positive outcomes. Women’s interest in WUA activities meant greater involvement in agriculture and allied activities and hence higher economic returns, such as the profits earned through prawn cultivation by women in South 24 Parganas; income diversification activities such as orchard farming by women members of WUA in Bankura and Purulia; horticulture in South 24 Parganas, etc. Indeed, some of the WUAs were planning to introduce fisheries, vermicomposting, etc. to promote women’s participation.

Such evidence does strengthen the arguments for investing not only in economic progress but also in interventions that would strengthen women’s capabilities and make participation in water governance a productive experience.

The authors acknowledge the contribution and support from Sudeshna Dutta, Moumita Ghosh, Suranjana Karmakar, Dr. Alok Sikka, Country Representative for IWMI India and Bangladesh, Shri Prabhat Kumar Mishra, IAS, Principal Secretary, Govt. of West Bengal, and Shri Akhilesh Parey, Team Leader, State Project Management Unit, WBADMIP.

About the authors

Dr. Tanusree Paul, GEDSI Consultant at IWMI, India, and Assistant Professor, Women's Studies Centre, Visva-Bharati University, Santiniketan

Dr. Naga Velpuri, Research Group Leader, Water Data Science for Action (WDSA), IWMI

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