February 23, 2023

WOMEN: Not Just Collecting & Using, But Managing Water!

In a vast developing country like India with deeply entrenched gender divides, the words ‘water’ and ‘women’ are synonymous with one another.  For it is on the shoulders of the women of the family, where the responsibility of collecting water, rests. And as water becomes more and more scarce, it is a heavy, and unfair burden to bear – particularly with its impacts exacerbated by the consequences of climate change. As water scarcity, heatwaves and droughts become more widespread, women and girls find themselves walking greater distances to fetch water.

Yet with so much responsibility for the collection of water, it is surprising then that women have very little say in decision making around water and its management.  Water management remains primarily driven by men, despite widespread research which suggests that a woman’s involvement in the management of water resources and infrastructure improves efficiency and effectiveness, enhances outputs and improves sustainability.

Sadly, according to the International Women Association, women make up less than 17% of the water, sanitation, and hygiene labour force in developing economies and a fraction of the policymakers, regulators, management, and technical experts. Clearly, a lot more needs to be done here.

The Daily Drudgery Indian Women Face

Collecting and carrying water are primarily women's responsibilities in India.  Water for domestic use like cooking and cleaning must be uncontaminated, and of course raising children requires nourishing and sanitary water. With a huge reliance on water, Indian women must exhaust limited time and impinge on their health to meet the needs of the family.

What does it look like on an average day for rural women? Indian women may need to make up to six trips a day to gather and transport water - sometimes averaging ten miles a day, carrying up to fifteen litres every trip. Women load jars on their heads to carry water, where the pressure, added with the distance to water sources, creates back, feet, and posture problems. Walking in the heat of the day increases exhaustion, and takes away much needed time for other duties. There are enormous opportunity costs to fetching water – deprived from being able to earn an income, care for their children, or for younger girl's, get a proper education.  And it is the entire family that suffers as a result.

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Participation of all Users & Stakeholders in Water Management

To address India’s water issues, there is a need for sustainable management of local water resources.  For this to occur, there is a need for local ownership and regulation of water, where all users and stakeholders are involved in developing water management and irrigation programs, including—perhaps first and foremost—women.

The role of women is essential because of the fact that men and women tend to have different priorities and needs when it comes to water. Women prefer to have domestic water supplies and irrigation structures close to their house - allowing them to divide their time between productive and domestic responsibilities. Men, who are usually more mobile, do not care about the location of supply, so it is less important to them.

Additionally, women are also more often responsible for subsistence agricultural production while men are primarily engaged in commercial agricultural production – once again creating different needs in terms of supply and water management.

However, many of women’s tasks are not part of a ‘formal structure’ which means women are not drawn into community discussions with government and are often ‘left out’ of strategic planning and decision making.

This is a serious oversight. Through their informal work, women possess special knowledge, experience and skills around water management. Water projects that overlook women’s central role in water management and exclude them, not only bypass half the population but also reduce the efficiency, effectiveness and sustainability of the projects.

Sadly, women themselves are often unaware of their potential value in the management of water.  They are often not involved in water user associations, public water management bodies, and water committees – which ultimately hinders the success of water management efforts. There are stark gaps in women’s access to information and education, and a need for enhanced capacity development. It is important therefore, to ensure that the water sector becomes more gender aware.

For the relationship between people and water is not gender-neutral and there is a growing body of evidence that shows the benefits of incorporating gender issues into water management. At the end of the day, policies and interventions around water management can only truly succeed if women are included alongside men, in every single aspect of water management.

February 23, 2023

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