National conference by IRRAD and UNICEF on women-led water management: Strategies towards water sustainability in rural India

A National Conference on Women-led Water Management was organised during November 5-6, 2012, in Haryana, India and focused on strategies towards water sustainability in rural India
22 Nov 2012
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The Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) and UNICEF India hosted this  National Conference on Women-led Water Management .

Water has gender dimensions. Women and men derive different benefits from its availability, use and management. Although women literally carry water, they are often left out of the decision making process about community water management. Studies from different parts of the country show that water management programmes are more effective if women are included in decision making.

“Women and girls in rural India are responsible for nearly all household tasks.  Women in this traditional role are by necessity skilled and efficient administrators, and yet they are allowed relatively little decision-making power in their own lives, are often relegated to silence by the men in their families, backed by long-standing cultural norms.  This is why a conference with national scope is so critical particularly given India’s water stressed communities and the difficult chore that falls upon the women,” noted Ben Sehgal of IRRAD.

The objectives of the conference were to create a network and leverage for engaging the policy makers towards women-led water management; highlight and document the best practices experimented in different parts; provide a platform to present different models on the theme, and identify strategies for scaling up; develop mechanisms to work with cultural issues and identify innovative technologies supporting women's leadership for taking the MDG goals forward.

The conference spanning two days featured paper presentations on various themes to share success stories related to women’s leadership role and participation in water management and sanitation, needs assessment, planning, decision making, implementation, monitoring and social audit and innovative approaches to elevate women dignity and eliminate water related women drudgery; equity and inclusion; capacity building and policy and governance.

According to IRRAD’s Chief Executive Officer, Ms. Jane Schukoske, “When women are actively involved in planning water management, the community benefits. To lead water management, women need information, confidence and access to decision-making.”

IRRAD has successfully designed, tested, and implemented its models, including water, sanitation and hygiene in several villages of Mewat district, Haryana. Scarcity of clean water is one of the biggest challenges facing rural India and our integrated water management model aims at increasing the quality, quantity, reliability and accessibility of the village water supply. “IRRAD’s mission to promote water-management solutions such as household rainwater harvesting and community water tanks that are simple and low-cost will make a major impact, especially for women and girls,” noted Jay Sehgal, Trustee and Board member, IRRAD.

The opening session of the conference had three presentations by panelists and was chaired by M D Asthana (Retd. IAS). Lalit Sharma, IRRAD said that all responsibilities were vested with women who however did not have commensurate control and power. Patriarchy created disempowerment amongst women who are denied management responsibilities and opportunities to learn, further marginalising them. Hence the need for capacity building and motivation is a priority for women. 

Nafisa Barot, Utthan spoke of gender stereotyping of women as mere domestic users, without acknowledgement of their productive roles as farmers and the denial of land rights. She highlighted the centralised schemes like the water supply schemes which disempowered community participation by taking away the locus of control from them. She stressed the need to have a differentiated view of women representing class, caste, religion – hence a more nuanced understanding of women led water management issues. She stressed the need for institutional reform to strengthen women’s agency in water and development.

Aidan Cronin, UNICEF stressed the need for incorporating gender concerns in programming for water and sanitation. UNICEF identifies gender, caste and disability as basic exclusions and the need to factor these concerns while scaling up programmes as well as in policies related to water and sanitation. He gave evidence of gender and inequity issues in drinking water supply and sanitation data from Census and NSSO. This shows that the lowest quintile of population has an abysmally poor access to tap water and toilets. Cronin stressed the need for gender disaggregated data to better monitor progress against key gender exclusions. 

Anjal Prakash, SACIWaters addressed the need to look at a gendered history of India, an unexplored area of enquiry. Gender is part of the larger rights and justice framework. He stressed the importance of  looking  at  gender  sensitization  and  representation  of  women  in  traditionally  male dominated field of  engineering and  in state government agencies implementing water management programmes. He also stressed the need for gender disaggregated data that is largely unavailable in India, so that gender concerns in water management can be better monitored.

The second session looked at best practices in women led water management experiences from India and was chaired by Anjal Prakash.  K H  Anantha, ICRISAT made  a presentation  on  experiences on  watershed  management, the role of self help groups (SHGs) and its positive  impacts  on  women’s livelihoods. Shivangi Verma, CTRAN Consulting Ltd. presented the positive results of a pilot project on bio-digester technology for treating human faeces in pit latrines with bacteria in twelve villages in Orissa. The technology demonstrates a low maintenance regime that is pathogen free and the experiment is now set for replication with a subsidy of Rs. 15000.

Abhijit Das, Kandi Raj College presented the successful management of arsenic filter treated water in West Bengal. The project managed by a women’s group has demonstrated that cost can be recovered when people receive treated water. He showed a comparison with another similar project that was managed by men and had failed.

Shubha Ramachandran, Biome shared the experience of an urban water management experience in Bangalore. The work started as rainwater harvesting clubs of women in middle and upper middle class gated communities of Bangalore and has been successful in securing water security for these colonies as well as managing the wastewater for gardening and other uses. A small house with 100 sq ft of terrace can harvest 15,000 litres of rainwater in Bangalore with 900 mm of rain spread over two seasons and this can meet three to four month’s water requirement of the house. The group is also working with water harvesting in government schools in peri-urban Bangalore.

This session generated a lively discussion with questions on key lessons emerging from the success  stories  of  specific  project  strategies  adopted  to  secure  greater  participation  and ownership of women. To what extent have gender barriers been overcome remained the larger concern. Any successful project requires women’s participation but that in itself may not ensure that gender barriers are broken.

Status quo with respect to gender may even strengthen/worsen in “successful” projects. Hence a need to have a larger framework of social, cultural, economic and political empowerment of women remains a key challenge in gender inclusion. Some of these are quantifiable and measurable through gender disaggregated data monitoring, others are not, as per feedback from practitioners and activists.

There is a need to work on social mainstreaming in development projects. This is necessary to be able to locate and identify the larger gender barriers that have been addressed either by design or by default and what more needs to be done.

Post lunch, the young and enthusiastic theatre team from Asmita Theatre, presented a short skit on women and water. It was followed by a hand washing visual demonstration, in a “magic show” format. An interactive session took place on how to better enact and present gender and water concerns. This Theatre in Education (TiE) is both about conveying a message and about sensitising the youth who join theatre on social issues.

The third session on equity and inclusion had seven presentations and was chaired by Bhamy Shenoy, Advisor, IRRAD. The first presentation by Eshwar Kale, Watershed Organization Trust dealt with the project cycle approach of women-led watershed management; including the federation of women led SHGs. Indira Khurana, WaterAid (India) in her presentation discussed the organisational aims, objectives and strategies followed by WaterAid in addressing equity and inclusion.  WaterAid  is  specifically  intervening in  the  National  Drinking  Water Programme by supporting the implementation of Village Water Security Planning and Water Quality Monitoring,  and in the National Sanitation Programme  (Nirmal  Bharat Abhiyan) by supporting training of Jal Sahiyas (a cadre of frontline workers in the water sector) in Jharkhand.

Manas Biswal, Regional Center for Development Cooperation, Orissa dealt with the programme approach in scaling up women’s engagement in water and sanitation projects in Orissa.  Pradeep Mehta, IRRAD presented the gender dimension of water in the water-scare region of Mewat. The study specifically looked into the role of women in water related activities, women’s drudgery and the impact of water scarcity on women’s education. 

Sunetra Lala, UNICEF and Jyotsna, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation presented an ongoing study to identify a gender framework in water and sanitation.  Gregor von Medeazza, UNICEF presented the work of Community Led Total Sanitation (CLTS) in Madhya Pradesh. The CLTS methodology includes women and the whole community and has the potential to improve governance in general.

The session highlighted the difference in gender approach of supportive donor agencies and of implementing agencies. Implementing agencies offer their ground experience to support donor agencies. The work  done in Women’s Development Programme in mid 1980s in Rajasthan and by women’s groups like Kutch Mahila Vikas Sangathan, Utthan and Jagori provides valuable lessons for donor agencies and support organisations.

The main challenge in large well funded government programmes of drinking water and sanitation is who must deliver women-led water management. CLTS is one approach to promote sanitation. Whether exclusion and gender are addressed adequately in CLTS is yet to be proven. As a programme approach, CLTS provides sanitation coverage and many programmes including Global Sanitation Fund are using CLTS as a programme approach in Jharkhand, Bihar and Orissa.

The first day ended with an open plenary discussion and allowed an opportunity for informal networking and learning for over two hundred delegates.

The key highlights of the second day were the sessions on capacity building and policy & governance. The speakers talked about the need of capacity building interventions in the water sector for women. IRRAD shared its experience with women’s groups' on water. On the sustainability front, speakers  shared  how  women-led  water  committees  in  the  villages  took  charge  upon completion of the project by the state government. It was observed that although efforts have been made to bring women into water management, there is still a long way to go for women to become decision makers.

Ajit Saxena, Energy Environment and Development Society presented the innovative “Pan in the van approach for inclusive WASH” where ‘pan’ denotes hardware and ‘van’ is equipped with studio video aids, Information Education and Communication (IEC) tools and games, technological options, exhibits and resource team to offer a complete package for achieving and maintaining total sanitation, cost effectively. 

Dr. K A S Mani shared the successful experiment of the Andhra Pradesh Farmer Managed Groundwater System (APFAMGS), which included women in technical tasks related to monitoring of the local hydrologic situation and assessment of risks. Prakash Nelliyat, Centre for Water Resources, Anna University spoke on capacity building on interdisciplinary gender oriented education and research through examining the changes that have occurred in water resources education, training a new generation of women water professionals and gender issues in water resources management emerging from the field studies, and the impact of oriented research carried out in some parts of Chennai.

The next session explored policy and governance concerns in achieving women-led water management.  Niranjan Vedantam, UNICEF presented a vulnerability assessment of households to problems of lack of domestic and productive needs from three villages of Maharashtra, representing three distinct agro-ecological and socio-economic environments, to assess the degree of problems associated with lack of water for domestic and productive needs.

The paper presented by Aditya Bastola, IRRAD dealt with whether institutional structures in Jalswarajya Project encourage good water governance. The  Jalswarajya project is a drinking  water  project  of  a  water  sector  reform  initiative  implemented  by  the  State Government of Maharashtra in 2002-03 that mobilised women as members of Self Help Groups (SHGs). While the promotion of SHGs helped women’s economic gain, it did not change household and decision making power. 

Urvashi Prasad, Ministry of Drinking Water and Sanitation highlighted the ‘No toilet, no bride” campaign under the nation’s flagship sanitation program, Nirmal Bharat Abhiyan. She also noted that menstrual hygiene management is not a part of the model curriculum. Neelima Alam, Department of Science and Technology focused on empowering women through affordable and sustainable technological solutions to address various water challenges in the country.

S Halder, Department of Water Resources Investigation and Development showcased how the women-led  water  governance  for  sustainable  irrigation in  West  Bengal  established  the productive role of women in managing irrigation. He stressed that strong  governance  must  be  imposed  so  that  irrigation  water  users  associations  register themselves and a quota for women must be established to get them access to irrigation water and become involved in decision making.

In the last session on action planning participants were organized into four groups to propose action points for the themes allotted. The themes were as follows:

Group 1: Strategy to make an enabling environment for women’s role in decision making; 

Group 2: Role of civil society to pave the way for women-led water management and sanitation;

Group  3:  Role  of  government  institutions  to  pave  the  way  for  women  led  water management and sanitation;

Group 4: What research needs exist and what methodological issues are we facing?

Each group was led by an expert in the given area.

Group 1 proposed that a strong framework is needed at the individual household and community level. Strategies should be adopted which include learning from experience, encouraging  women participation,  reservation-rights-knowledge sensitization, collective strength, use of mass media/school curriculum,  gender budgeting,  economic independence, need-based capacity building and institutionalization of regional successes. In addition, it was suggested that feedback alongside a proper monitoring flow can enable systematic flow from national to state to district, further to block and lastly to village level institutions.

Group 2 suggested reservations up to 50 per cent for encouraging/promoting women’s participation in programmes, failing which their implementation should be stopped. There is also  a need  for  social  mobilization  of  women,  which includes  men  to  support  women, awareness generation, oath taking on special days, and incentives for participation of women. There is a need for capacity building of women and making them role models in the society. There should be more institutions and agencies to empower women that should strive to replicate good models to other areas suiting cultural and geographical context based on a bottom-up approach.

Group 3 raised the need to have gender-segregated data and capacity building to incorporate gender in WASH programs. As gender is mostly neglected, there is a need to think of piloting gender considerate programs that can be scaled up. This can be done by bringing synergies between different programs and department/ministries, looking at the district/block level and inclusion of gender and vulnerable groups into policies. This also can be done by having state specific policies/flexibilities and advocacy through media

Group 4 identified research areas and issues which include convergence of replicable models at the grassroots level.  Convergence becomes an issue due to lack of institutional coordination, lack of community understanding, lack of understanding of theory of change, lack of empirical support, water security and lack of data linkages. There is also a need for understanding the water issues in a multidisciplinary framework. There should be more rigorous documentation. Women’s role in irrigation drainage and soil conservation is not well researched, thus there is a need of gender friendly technology. Also, there was discussion of methodology for research. There is a lack of knowledge of gender-related methodologies, inconsistent use of terminology, need for vigorous proof of causation and need to insure adequate number of women respondents in data collection.

In the wrap up session, Jane Schukoske, CEO, IRRAD speaking from the perspective of civil society organisations, observed that there are several next steps for NGOs attending the conference. First, NGOs that do not have gender policies that guide them in involving women at both programmatic and staffing levels may formulate such policies (for example, there can be percentage targets set for women's participation in programmes). Such institutional policy can help shore up greater support for gender in WASH.

Second, NGOs can arrange exposure visits to other NGOs which are effectively working with women-led WASH programmes (including the mason training and other women-led WASH construction programmes) so that staff can learn about involvement of women in planning, design, implementation and maintenance of structures.

Third, WASH training programmes should be reviewed for comprehensiveness and quality. Speakers featured the importance of including all relevant curricular topics (for example, menstrual hygiene management was a topic omitted from some curricula), gender balance in selecting trainers and participants, inclusive training methods to encourage active participation by women, and the need for training at all levels (e.g., at the block, district, state and central levels), not just grassroots.

Fourth, some NGOs should engage with academic institutions on participatory research (seeking research ideas from communities and sharing the research results with them), and arrange for impact analysis of their work. IRRAD has a Rural Research Center that works on both of these aspects. Fifth, the conference brought together organisations that can network in the future to share ideas for conducting policy advocacy and for future conferences.

Lastly, we may think of setting up clearing houses of materials by climatic area.

To mark the closing of the conference Lalit Mohan Sharma, IRRAD proposed a vote of thanks. He summarized the deliberations that took place during the past two days and expressed that the conference had a good set of speakers who brought rich experiences from various fields at one platform. He assured that the recommendations that have come out from the action planning session will be taken forward and that there is a need to intensify efforts in promoting women-led water management.

The Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD), Gurgaon, Haryana, India, is an initiative of the S.M. Sehgal Foundation, India, and is supported by the Sehgal Family Foundation, headquartered in Des Moines, Iowa, USA. IRRAD promotes sustainable rural development with emphasis on water management, sustainable agriculture and agricultural income enhancement, sanitation and hygiene, and rural governance. Women and water are at the heart of all these activities. Please see for more information.

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