A report on the national conference on women-led water management organised by IRRAD

Nearly 70% of India’s 1.2 billion people live in rural areas, many of which face unprecedented water shortages. The job of providing water for the household invariably falls on women, often at the expense of their education, income earning opportunities, social and cultural and political involvement. 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. The development of effective, sustainable water initiatives in rural India is vital to the country’s future and the empowerment of women. Reliable access to clean water allows Indian women to realize a greater potential in their communities and live fuller lives.

For more than a decade, the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) has developed replicable, scalable solutions to the problems that face the villages of India, most notably water scarcity leading to poor availability and access, waste water disposal, poor awareness about safe drinking water, low agricultural productivity and income, and poor local governance. These development models have been developed, tested and implemented in select villages in Mewat, a water-stressed and socioeconomically lagging district of Haryana. To truly make a significant impact, IRRAD is working to take its models to other parts of rural India.

In an effort to begin a focused discussion on tactics and initiatives that have proven their effectiveness in promoting sustainable water access and promote women’s role in water management, sanitation and hygiene in rural Indian villages, the Institute of Rural Research and Development (IRRAD) on Nov 5-6, 2012 organized a National Conference on Women-led Water Management in partnership with UNICEF India. The conference focused on strategies towards water sustainability in rural India and brought together a diverse and knowledgeable cadre of nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and education institutions.

The conference featured paper presentations on various themes to share success stories related to women’s leadership role and participation in water management and sanitation in needs assessment, planning, decision making, implementation, monitoring and social audit. Speakers also shared and innovative approaches to elevate women’s dignity and eliminate water related women drudgery; promote equity and inclusion; and build women’s capacity. The conference culminated with discussions of action planning and policy recommendations.

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.”

Highlights: Day One

The Opening Session of the Conference had three presentations by panellists and was chaired by Mr. M. D. Asthana (retd. IAS). Lalit Sharma (IRRAD) identified the problem of all responsibilities vested with women without commensurate control and power in dispensing them. He identified patriarchy creating disempowerment amongst women who are denied management responsibilities and opportunities to learn, further marginalising them. Hence the need for capacity building and motivation is 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 denied land rights. She highlighted the centralised schemes including water supply schemes, disempowering community participation by taking away the locus of control from the community. 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 in scaled up programming and policy in water and sanitation. He gave evidence of gender and inequity issues in drinking water supply and sanitation data coming from Census and NSSO data that shows the lowest quintile of population having an abysmal access to tap water and toilets. He 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 that is an unexplored area of enquiry. Gender is part of the larger rights and justice Framework. He stressed the importance of looking at gender sensitisation and representation of women in traditionally male denominated 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 practises in women led water management experiences from India and was chaired by Anjal Prakash.  K.H Anantha (ICRISAT) made a presentation on watershed management experience and positive impacts on women’s livelihoods, including the role of Self help groups (SHGs) and different livelihoods options for women. Shivangi Verma (CTRAN Consulting Ltd.)presented the positive results of a pilot project in 12 villages in Orissa, of a bio-digester technology of treating human faeces in pit latrines with bacteria. The technology demonstrates a low maintenance regime that is pathogen free and the experiment is now set for replication with Rs 15000 subsidy. 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 receiving 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 rain water 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 waste water for gardening and other uses. A small house with 100 sq ft of terrace can harvest 15,000 litres of rain water 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 for gender disaggregated data monitoring, others are not. This has been the feedback from practitioners and activists. Working on social mainstreaming in development projects. It is important feedback – to be able to locate and identify which larger gender barriers 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. The skit energised the conference. It was followed by a hand washing visual demonstration, in a “magic show” spirit. 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 Equity and Inclusion had seven presentations and was chaired by Bhamy Shenoy, an IRRAD Adviser. The first presentation by Eshwar Kale (Watershed Organization Trust) shared the project cycle approach of women-led watershed management, including the federation of women led SHGs that have demonstrated leadership and achievement of impacts on livelihoods of women. Indira Khurana (WaterAid India) presented the organisational aims, objectives and strategies of WaterAid 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 (called 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) presented 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 water scare region of Mewat. In specific the study looked into the role of women in water related activities, women’s drudgery and impact of ater situation on women’s education. Sunetra Lala (UNICEF) and Jyotsna (MoDWS) 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. A rooted field based NGO usually has a longer term larger women empowerment focus at odds with short term project approaches. Creating a space for women to express themselves and to slowly take on more decision making responsibilities is a long term empowerment process. Experience of an innovative pilot project funded by DANIDA (Women’s Development Programme, 1986-88) in Rajasthan was instrumental in rural women developing first hand understanding of their own bodies including the reproductive cycle within a caste divided context. This pilot programme involved women activists working closely with village women to develop their agency. It produced excellent material and leadership amongst local women. The programme gave birth to the ‘Mahila Samakhya’ scheme of government of India initiated in 1989 (to translate the goals enshrined in the National Policy on Education into a concrete programme for the education and empowerment of women in rural areas particularly those from socially and economically marginalized groups.

The main challenge in large well funded government programmes of drinking water and sanitation is who must deliver women-led water management. The government agencies consisting of engineers of the State Public Health and Engineering (PHED) or Rural Development Department do not have experienced field staff who can undertake water and sanitation programmes with a gender empowerment focus. The government’s awareness-raising approach is commercial marketing focussed Information Education Communication materials including posters, jingles and short films with cricketers and film stars – that have little impact on sustaining behaviour change.

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 the over 200 delegates present.

Highlights: Day Two

The key highlights of the second day were the sessions on capacity building and policy and governance. The speakers talked about the need of capacity building interventions in the water sector for women, who happen to be the key stakeholders of the water resource. 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) on 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, GoI) 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) focussed on empowering women through affordable and sustainable technological solutions to address various water challenges in the country and S. Halder (Department of Water Resources Investigation and Development) showcased the women-led water governance for sustainable irrigation in West Bengal establishing the productive role of women in managing irrigation water resources. He stressed the facts 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.

Action Planning

In the last session 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 the 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 methodologies 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 for reservations up to 50% encouraging/promoting women’s participation in programmes, failing which there should be no implementation of the program. 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. In order to strengthen implementation, one should keep record of practices of accountability. 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 co-ordination, 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. Secondly, 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.

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

Visit our website www.irrad.org and blog http://blog.irrad.org/