Women and water - A collection of papers - Economic and Political Weekly - Volume XLVI - Number 18 - April 30 (2011)

These five papers on Women and Water published in the Economic and Political Weekly, examine the relationship of women to water.

It does this in the context of the new decentralised  governance structures that are based on the assumption that domestic water supply is the legitimate domain of women and thus power and authority needs to be granted to women to manage water resources.

However, there is a very little understanding of how this has benefited women and what are the challenges experienced during the process of implementation or the outcomes gained from these processes, in the context of the Indian society that continues to propogate patriarchal values and is based on structures that are inherently hierarchical and inequitable.

Some of the papers dwell on and explore the inherent biases in the literature and make an attempt to understand their implications for women in managing water resources, while some of the papers share case studies on the outcomes of the implementation of the decentralised water management policies at the village level.

Women and waterImage source: Wikimedia Commons

Women and water: Issues of gender, caste, class and institutions

This paper by Maithreyi Krishnaraj provides an introduction to the collection of papers on Gender and Water, which examine the relationship between women and water in the context of the institutional environment of gender relations and state policy.

The paper argues that:

  • Despite the policy initiatives and programmes that aim to expand access to water among users, the conversion of drinking water into a private good has led to commodification of water where the market controls who benefits and who pays the cost. This has had an adverse impact on women and the lower castes in a society, which is inherently hierarchical and inequitable, in the Indian context.
  • Even within the new decentralised governance structures, while power and authority are nominally granted to women to manage water resources, many questions still remain unanswered. For example, issues like to what extent does women’s representation in decisionmaking bodies empower them or how does it reinforce traditional social hierarchies in subtle ways still remain unanswered. It also remains to be explored whether the emergence of women’s visibility in the public sphere holds the promise of emancipation and greater gender equality.

The experiences narrated in some of the articles demonstrate that, decentralisation of power and authority with the launching of Panchayati Raj in local communities have had varied consequences at the field level. The assignment of work related to the supply and management of domestic water among women many a times has been found to put the onus on women to be efficient without the needed technical knowledge and skills.

At the same time, a look at the implementation of community managed systems, which are a part of the romanticised traditional water management systems indicates that, claims of social equity for such practices cannot be sustained because the women as well as the dalits have been excluded from equitable sharing of such village resources.

The paper ends by arguing that:

  • The same traditional hierarchies and inequalities stand the risk of being repeated in a situation where the crisis of shrinking water resources, can further lead to lack of access of the poor, especially women and lower castes to water.
  • At the same time, there are possibilities for innovation in collective action that can at times challenge or question accepted conventions and develop better ways of doing things, through the development of a common learning process that can evolve new ways and means of sharing of public goods in a more efficient and equitable manner. Thus,  institutions need to be regenerated. However, women’s agency is critical in this endeavour.

Women and decentralised water governance: Issues, challenges and the way forward

This paper by Seema Kulkarni examines the implications of decentralised governance in water and its ability to address gender and equity issues in the context of India by analysing the case of the implementation of  decentralised water governance in Maharashtra and Gujarat. The paper states that in an ideal situation, it is well understood that water is a public good and should be available, accessible and affordable to all the people in society.To enable this outcome, the nature of governance is important. Appropriate decentralisation, giving powers to local communities to manage their resources is an important avenue for achieving both equity and equality in access to this valuable resource.

However, experience indicates that, this is not the case when the process of decentralisation in distribution of water gets implemented at the ground level in the context of hierarchies in the society that control access to the resources by caste, class discriminations. In this context, women are found to suffer even more with the addition of patriarchal impositions. The success of decentralised water governance is constrained by the conceptualisation of the larger reform in water at one level and the conceptualisations of the normative woman, communities, public and the private domains and institutions at another. Unless all of these are altered, decentralised processes will not be truly democratic.

Categorical thinking about domestic water and irrigation, and men and women is commonplace now and affects how policies and programmes are shaped. Spaces are divided on what is masculine and what is feminine, the home and the outside world. However, men’s identities, are linked to the public sphere, money and power while women’s identities revolve around the home, nurture and subsistence. These identities transmit in exactly the same manner in the water sector and the sectoral divide is evidence to this.

The paper argues that:

  • Although, this categorical, dual thinking has worked to the advantage of women, by giving them space to participate in decisionmaking in domestic water, it can be also be counterproductive by denying women space in other spheres of work. Alternatives lie in re-conceptualising the normative rules for men and women and water.
  • Decentralisation does appear to provide legitimate space and a framework for women’s participation in water governance at the community level. Decentralisation has the potential for reshaping the institutional infrastructure of water management and of facilitating equitable community representation and inclusion.

However, the paper warns that there is a risk that the decentralisation of roles and responsibilities without the concomitant devolution of real power and resources can reduce it to a mere political objective that has little meaning for women’s representation or participation, given the inherent gender biases that prevent women from exercising voice, accessing resources or institutions.

Women and water

ImageSource: Wikimedia Commons

Questioning masculinities in water

This paper by Margreet Zwarteveen directs attention at the complete absence of women's voices in the context of irrigation, in spite of the fact that gender and women have now earned a legitimate place on water research and policy agendas. The paper argues that, beginning with colonial times and continuing to the present, irrigation has been an important site for the construction of gendered power and hegemonic masculinities and the irrigation world still continues to be a "man’s world".

This manifests itself along at least three different dimensions, which are linked although not in direct causal ways:

  • The first is the rights to irrigation water and infrastructure (rights to irrigated land and rights to participate in irrigation decision-making, almost everywhere in the world, are predominantly vested in men). Female irrigators and farmers have significantly fewer possibilities to own irrigated land and water than male irrigators and farmers do. Many a times, women are important providers of labour to irrigated agriculture and to canal maintenance and cleaning. However, they often do not themselves directly control the fruits of their work and this work is also typically valued and rewarded less than men’s irrigation work. They often do not have a formal voice in decision-making and do not have the same possibilities for influencing choices about the mobilisation of resources for maintenance or about water distribution as men do
  • The second is that the professional irrigation domain continues to be heavily male-dominated. The professional involvement with irrigation, be it as an engineer, manager or planner, is very much identified and perceived as a male activity, or as an activity belonging to the domain of men
  • Thirdly, irrigation narratives and knowledges have long devalorised women’s contributions or rendered thinking and speaking about women irrelevant. Although most contemporary irrigation texts are no longer overtly sexist, most current discursive interpretations of irrigation realities typically emphasise and attach greater value to those activities and experiences that are associated with men

The paper ends by arguing that the continued masculinity of irrigation is a problem that urgently requires critical investigation. Such studies will serve both as a first step to create more space for women engineers in government water agencies, and importantly contribute to unravelling important aspects of the cultural politics of water.

‘They are not of this house’: The gendered costs of drinking water’s commodification

This paper by Kathleen O'Reilly presents/describes the case of the implementation of a drinking water project in rural Rajasthan and highlights how it has led to marginalisation of women's needs and demands in a situation dominated by scarce resources. Community participation in the context of adherence to traditional norms and practices has led to consideration of girls before marriage as non contributary, non paying members of the household and as a burden to be paid for by communities, for their water needs. 

In this drinking water project in rural Rajasthan, community participation involved villagers beginning to pay for water and maintaining the system inside village boundaries. Women’s participation was also a key element of the supply system sustainability plan. However, some villagers reported that households paid for the drinking water of all members, except girls.

The project intended to make people pay for water, but it resulted in an uneven landscape where in certain villages, everyone, but girls paid. Prior beliefs about girls’ belonging and non-belonging led communities to consider that girls should not pay, in the context of decentralisation, democratisation and commodification, which enabled such a decision to be taken.

Once taken, a decision that girls should not be charged for water became daily practice, thereby strengthening belief’s about the girls’ lack of community ties before marriage.Thus, it could be seen that the outcome of commodification of water and participatory governance was the reinforcement of girls’ marginalisation in their natal villages.

The paper argues that:

  • This project demonstrated that by decentralising operation and maintenance to the village scale, by democratising village scale decision-making through community and women’s participation, the project introduced an opportunity for the stabilisation of gendered inequalities in a new sphere. Thus, it was assumed that girls could work, they could drink water, but “they were not of this house”, and therefore, were rendered invisible as village citizens.
  • These findings reasserted the view that that gendered participation depended on the existing rules and norms in the society, which worked to exclude women before any intervention began.

Women and waterImage source: Wikimedia Commons

Caste, gender and the rhetoric of reform in India’s drinking water sector

This paper by Deepa Joshi argues that the recent changes in domestic water policies have only served to exacerbate an enduring unequal social order around water in India. Assumptions had been made in the new policy that ability and willingness to pay would reflect water needs and translate into voice and choice in water management. However, in actuality, it has been found that the policy does not fare well for the marginalised by poverty and caste in the implementation of the new approach.

This paper focuses on the complex interrelationships between gender and caste, given the historic role of these factors in defining a persisting inequality in India. The paper argues that very little attention has been paid to the complex interplays and intersections between caste, gender and water in India. Assumptions continue to be made in the sector that inequalities exist only at the household/community levels, ignoring the complex intersection of gender and caste, which serve to restrict opportunities and access to education, skills, occupations and positions for women and some men in water implementing and policy organisations.

This paper discusses the interplay of caste, gender and water using two intersecting lines of analysis, first, complex caste and gender disparities across multiple institutional levels from the household to policy making forums; and second, a consistent reproduction of these disparities as water governance and management changed hands from community to state to recent neoliberal institutional arrangements.

Primary research presented in this paper is a group of mountain villages in the state of Uttarakhand in the Central Himalayan region, known popularly as Kumaon.The research indicates that there are distinct differences in the experiences of caste and gender based inequity, even though both are outcomes of the same principles and these inequities converge in complex intersections, making disparities by caste and gender difficult to segregate.

The paper ends by arguing that:

  • Policy reforms on caste and gender in India’s drinking water sector have been little other than rhetorical changes in policy on paper. The viewing of caste and gender as segregated categories have served to restrict affirmations for dalit women and have also missed out on both gender and caste benefits.
  • The drinking water sector is an excellent example of flawed policies, which have sustained the convenient fractures of a divisive society.

The papers can be downloaded from below:

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