A women in Far Western Nepal uses a water pump to wash pots and pans. (Photo credit: Andrew Reckers

Why access to water may not benefit all women equally

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Gender, Gender & Development Journal, General, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) 1 Comment

In a study of water projects in Western Nepal Stephanie Leder and Floriane Clement found that community dynamics impacted on planning processes. As a result the more marginalized and disadvantaged women were less likely to benefit from improved water supplies. (Stephanie and Floriane, with Emma Karki, authored an article for the WASH issue of Gender & Development ).

A woman in Far Western Nepal uses a water pump to wash pots and pans. (Photo credit: Andrew Reckers

A woman in Far Western Nepal uses a water pump to wash pots and pans. Credit: Andrew Reckers

Global discourses on water security are taking on social concerns now more than ever. Whereas such discourses often portray women as victims of water insecurity, there is a much more limited attention to how gender, intersecting with other social identities, shapes the distribution of benefits of water development projects. In other words, providing water access to women does not automatically translate into empowerment and neither does it benefit all women equally.

we found that the contribution of water security projects to women’s empowerment was limited by technical and managerial models of development
In our study of water security projects in Western Nepal we found that the contribution of water security projects to women’s empowerment was limited by technical and managerial models of development (Leder et al. 2017). Water development projects need to pay attention to the many identities that produce social inequalities for the most marginalized women to benefit. They also need to understand women’s empowerment through the web of social relationships that exist within and beyond households and communities.

Understanding empowerment

Water security interventions have increasingly claimed to contribute to “women’s empowerment.” However, what constitutes women’s empowerment is rarely defined and often narrowly understood as economic empowerment or increased decision-making over practical needs. The current use of the term fails to recognize that women’s empowerment is not only about economic change; it is also about political and social change, gender inequality, class, and caste.

The two projects we analysed envisioned that enhanced access to water for both domestic and productive uses will lead to women’s empowerment through a linear pathway. However, we found that local political and social factors, such as class caste, age, family situations and social relationships complicate such linkages to produce non-linear outcomes.

The importance of family dynamics

In many households… it is normal for women to seek permission from their husbands and mother-in-laws in order to leave the house to participate in village related activities
Initiatives that exclusively target women and ignore men or elder women or girls are likely to have a limited effect on empowerment. In many households in Western Nepal it is normal for women to seek permission from their husbands and mother-in-laws in order to leave the house to participate in village related activities, such as water management discussions. Development practitioners seeking to improve the agency of young women need to address gendered perceptions of young men as well as older women.

In Western Nepal, many of the family dynamics that limit a woman’s agency, however, have begun to shift because of the changing patterns of long-term male out-migration for work opportunities. In addition, many families have moved to a nuclear family set-up, limiting the role of the mother-in-law. The combination of these two factors has increased women’s visibility and has allowed women to have the opportunity to occupy spaces traditionally reserved for men, such as representing their household when attending meetings of water user groups.

In the Martadi village of the Bajura District in Far Western Nepal, women map their households and water resources as part of a focus group discussion. Credit: Andrew Reckers

In the Martadi village of the Bajura District in Far Western Nepal, women map their households and water resources as part of a focus group discussion. Credit: Andrew Reckers

Local power relations and geographical inequalities

Local power relationships and the spatial and physical set up of villages also largely determine who benefits and who does not benefit from water intervention projects
Local power relationships and the spatial and physical set up of villages also largely determine who benefits and who does not benefit from water intervention projects. In the Western hills of Nepal where households are spread across large areas with a high topographic gradient, it is often difficult for projects to provide water access to everyone. Across the four case study villages, we observed that mostly households of the affluent and politically connected had the greatest ability to benefit from project water interventions. Unless projects have an affirmative strategy to identify and reach out to the most marginalized, they hold the risk of exacerbating inequalities and conflicts around water access.

Identifying barriers of caste

Lastly, a narrow focus on ‘women’ without attention to how gender intersects with other social identities to shape power relationships can lead to counter-productive results. Two powerful examples:

  • To fulfil the project’s gender and social inclusion objectives to include Dalits (formerly called ‘untouchables’) and women in meetings, staff often selected female Dalits. This resulted in meetings comprised mostly of only Chettri (high caste) men and Dalit women, creating a ‘double barrier’ for Dalit women to influence decision-making processes as they were uncomfortable being overheard when expressing their views in this context.
  • In one of the case study sites Dalit women were dependent on upper-caste women for water collection because they are not allowed to touch natural spring water. According to customary Hindu beliefs Dalit women will contaminate water sources upon touching them. In some project sites where newly installed water systems disproportionately improved water access for upper caste women over Dalit women, Dalit women met increasing difficulty to access water. Fewer upper caste women were available around natural springs to fill Dalit women’s water vessels as they had access to taps close to their homes. This resulted in many Dalit women either having to spend more time arranging for upper-caste women to fetch them water or collecting murky water from the river.

A way forward

Our analysis has highlighted that relationships linking water resource development and women’s empowerment are complex and highly location and household specific. Inter- and intra-household relations of different kinds – including caste, age, and family composition and positioning – have to be taken into account when aiming at empowering women through water security interventions. To improve the state of women’s empowerment through water intervention projects, we offer the following recommendations:

  1. Ensure rigorous gender analysis at the planning stages of a project to allow targeted approaches with the maximum potential for increasing diverse women’s agency.
  2. Focus on building confidence and capacity amongst diverse men and women within communities before intervening technically.
  3. Design training interventions that cater to the specific needs of different demographics and land ownership statuses. For example, involve landless farmers in a meaningful way, provide childcare to involve daughter-in-laws and adjust timings to include female-headed households.
  4. Introduce participatory gender trainings for field staff and farmers so they can become sensitized to the differences individuals and households face in water resource access and agency. Centre discussions of discrimination of gender and caste with farmers so that solutions for more inclusive project implementation can be created.
  5. Involve all types of family members in gender trainings so that all family members can best support female members of the family, especially those who hold the role of a wife or daughter-in-law.
  6. Make regular assessments of social inequalities in water security programmes, particularly to understand how multiple social markers intersect and shape water access. Discuss with diverse female and male farmers through participatory methods such as empowerment mappings, and gender position bars, and adjust interventions accordingly.

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Author
Stephanie Leder

Stephanie Leder

Stephanie Leder is a post-doctoral researcher at the Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences (SLU). Prior to this she was at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Kathmandu, Nepal. She holds a PhD in Cultural Geography from the University of Cologne, Germany, on Education for Sustainable Development in India. Her research interests cover questions of social and environmental justice in the context of agrarian and social change in South Asia with a particular focus on gender relations and participatory approaches.

Author
Floriane Clement

Floriane Clement

Floriane Clement is currently senior researcher, Nepal country representative and gender focal point at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI), based in Kathmandu, Nepal. Her research is aimed at understanding the gaps between the intentions of environmental and natural resource policies and programmes on the one hand, and practices on the ground on the other hand. Her work is rooted in human geography, borrowing concepts, theories and tools from political science, feminist studies and development studies. She has 10 years work experience in India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and Vietnam.