Women hold the key to water for food security and nutrition

Study reveals women are central to both food production and preparation, as well as to domestic water provisioning.
A woman from the Ahir tribe at Chapredi village, east of Bhuj with cotton husks. (Image: Meena Kadri, Flickr Commons, CC BY-ND 2.0 A woman from the Ahir tribe at Chapredi village, east of Bhuj with cotton husks. (Image: Meena Kadri, Flickr Commons, CC BY-ND 2.0

The water sector remains male dominated at different scales, from engineers and technocrats responsible for designing irrigation systems, to upper caste and upper class men who decide on the location of canals, borewells, tanks, and other water systems at the grassroots level. While women are involved in the daily management of water for food production, especially on small farms, they have little say in water provisioning decisions.

In spite of the close links between production choices, the security of water for consumption, gendered social relations, and the very implications of these interlinkages for health and nutrition are under-explored. A study ‘Gender, water and nutrition in India: An intersectional perspective’ in Water Alternatives, a journal on water, politics and development sought to fill this gap by analysing the links between water in all its dimensions, with food and nutrition security.

The study authored by Amit Mitra and Nitya Rao unpacks the gendered pathways mediating the links between water security in all its dimensions and nutritional outcomes. It is based on research in 12 villages in two districts of two states (Wardha in Maharashtra and Koraput in Odisha).

Farming system seen as the domain of men

Contemporary production systems and the commercialisation of agriculture lead to greater stress on water resources and create shortages, triggering diversification and male migration. Consequently, women’s time and work burdens increase, including in the provisioning of domestic water and in maintaining clean and hygienic water for household use. The time women spend on these different tasks (related to the availability and accessibility of clean water) influences the conditions of food preparation, and impact their own as well as the household’s nutrition security.

Water infrastructure development and shift in cropping patterns with commercialisation can disrupt the natural water-flow cycles, which in turn disrupts people’s livelihoods, survival strategies, and gender relations.

The larger farming systems, which include livestock, homestead gardens, and other forms of food collection and processing, and their close interlinkages with household reproduction and well-being are ignored.

Likewise, water and sanitation interventions target women as custodians of the domestic sphere. These interventions tend to disempower women by ignoring pre-existing sociocultural practices and relationships.

Insights from the field

The paper has five sections. It first sets out the conceptual starting points in relation to the literature on gender, water, and nutrition security. The methodology and the study areas are then presented, followed by a discussion on insights from the field in relation to the literature, and finally the conclusion.

Toilets in households have only increased the drudgery of village women as they have to fetch water from faraway sources for toilet use. (Image: India Water Portal)

Does availability and access to water improve the standard of living for women?

There has been a rapid expansion of piped and borewell water in the study villages and a majority of households have access to water. In all the households, women have the primary responsibility for collection, storage, and handling of water for domestic use, i.e. for cooking, cleaning and bathing.

While improved water sources exist in most of the villages, access varies by social group, which shapes, and is shaped by, patterns of settlement.

All households get water from multiple sources, depending on the functioning of the piped source or handpump, the timing of water supply, and the pressures of gendered farm work in different seasons. Yet, for the lowest social groups there are additional factors relating to conflict avoidance and maintenance of dignity. Further, the improved water sources do not really address domestic water needs, apart from drinking water.

Cultivation of water-intensive crops like Bt cotton in Wardha, an area experiencing recurrent rainfall deficits, has led to competitively digging deeper for water. Women generally prefer traditional cotton varieties that need less water, fertilisers and pesticides, and which have lower risks.

Women have a perspective on cropping patterns and crop varieties that is informed by their knowledge of farming, by the availability of water, and by the food and nutrition security needs of their family. Yet, in the context of competition with men, they are unable to influence planting decisions.

The decision of whether or not to opt for a piped-water connection, and decisions about location of street taps, are taken by men and are not always convenient for women. Access here is linked to the overall frameworks of power and legitimacy, which in turn determines who benefits from the water source across institutions and contexts. Each mode of access is dynamic, shaped by factors like distance, time, cost, and physical burden, as well as elements of class power, the gendered nature of spaces and decision-making, and caring and emotional labour. Even in well-conceived NGO interventions, a lack of awareness of gender and social hierarchies and power relations can create access problems for women low in the social and caste hierarchy.

Water quality falls on the shoulders of women

Access to water tends to assume top priority; and hence the quality of that water often becomes the problem of the beneficiary household due to the absence of functioning institutions. Water quality is deprioritised, which in turn increases the workloads of women in the household. For example, they have to then do extra work such as procuring extra fuelwood for boiling water, and collecting water as men prefer to bathe indoors nowadays. The cultural practice of discarding stale water adds to the time burden for women. Even if the water tap is located close to their homes, multiple trips are required for water collection.

Women in some villages in the project area face a time trade-off, and often end up prioritising their 'production/cultivation' functions over their 'domestic' ones. In terms of food and nutrition security, food production is as important to them as clean drinking water.

Women are not just consumers of water for the household

Women in some villages were found to play a big role, both in maintaining the water structures and channels, as well as in the choice and regulation of crops. This has intensified with male migration to urban areas in search of work, and women are left in charge of agriculture on top of running the household.

The link between water and sanitation, and what that means for women

Women are not consulted on the location of the toilet, which is often built at the entrance of the house in full public gaze. Women are reluctant to use such toilets, due to notions of shame and for other reasons. The toilets lie unused and sometimes fuelwood or other material are stored in them. An important, though neglected issue persists in relation to the cleaning of the toilets and filling of the water trough, both of which increase the workload of women.

Without resolving the problem of water collection and storage for use in the toilets, and without assigning or sharing responsibility for cleaning and maintenance even within households, improved sanitation and an end to open defecation is unlikely to be achieved.

Water – a highly gendered subject

As markets increasingly penetrate agrarian settings, land and water use patterns change and along with them, gender relations. While class, caste, and ethnicity typically differentiate the precise roles of women and their modes of access to water, women are central to both food production and preparation, as well as to domestic water provisioning. Yet in planning and decision-making mechanisms on situating water-related infrastructure both at micro and macro levels, women are bypassed and social and gender norms and relations are largely ignored. This oversight can potentially end up increasing the work burden (especially for poorer women) and the possibility of conflict. It can also negatively affect their social status, use of facilities, and infrastructure.

The study is available here

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