This working paper by Watershed Organisation Trust titled ‘The challenges and ways forward in gender mainstreaming in the water sector in arid and semi-arid India’, discusses the findings of a study that aimed at exploring the key barriers that affect women’s participation in groundwater management in arid and semiarid regions of Maharashtra by exploring how the feminine and masculine notions are constructed and work in the management of groundwater
Groundwater management is important as more than 80 per cent of agriculture in India is groundwater-dependent. While few initiatives such as MARVI, APFAMGS, etc on engaging women in groundwater management exist, they continue to be inadequately researched and documented. The Watershed Organisation Trust (WOTR) study was conducted in fourteen villages from Ahmednagar District in western Maharashtra and Jalna District in Marathwada in Maharashtra where WOTR has initiated a water stewardship initiative (WSI) to promote water management at the village level since 2016. In-depth interviews, focused group discussions and case study methods were used to obtain information from the men and women in the village. The study found that:
Women were interested in efficiency while men were interested in increasing water potential
Most men and women, active as well as inactive at different levels in water management, were aware of water issues and the activities taking place in their villages under the WSI and different government and NGO programmes. However, women were more interested in issues regarding the judicious and efficient use of water through preventing water leakages from water taps, use of percolation tanks to increase groundwater availability and use of water saving measures such as drips and sprinklers. On the contrary, men were found to be more interested in increasing the water harvesting potential in the village through different treatments.
Participation of women was low
Very few women participated in the meetings and stakeholder engagement processes in WSI, but they actively contributed to voluntary labour for the construction and repair of water harvesting structures. Men’s involvement was consultative and activity specific while women were mainly sought for passive roles. Although women from the different social groups attended meetings and workshops as per the quota, they were largely silent and attended meetings on very few occasions. It was the men who were selected and women acted only as proxies.
Socio-cultural barriers faced by women
Participation placed an extra burden on women’s time and reinforced gender stereotypes without helping in terms of economic or social benefits. While women enjoyed the space created for them to enter the public sphere, frequent workshops and meetings led to increased burden on the women and claimed the time they used for household work and agricultural labour. Women had to spend extra hours to complete household work and in a few instances the burden was transferred to other women members in the family.
Women were considered for only drinking water and overall water management was considered as men’s business
Water management was considered to be ‘technical’ and a men’s job and activities associated with it such as physical survey of soil and water harvesting structures which needed roaming in fields, monitoring levels of groundwater and availability of surface water, and calculation of water budgeting were considered to be technical in nature. Thus, no attempts are made to simplify and demystify these issues and techniques for women. While there was a shift from complete absence to the gradual presence in decision-making related to water among women, this presence is more prominent in the domestic water sector which is considered to be the responsibility of women. Irrigation and productive water were seen as a male domain despite majority of the manual tasks being done by women.
Social taboos and norms perpetuated gender bias
Prevalent social taboos and norms perpetuating gender bias were seen as one of the important reasons for the low participation of women in WSI and stakeholder engagement workshops. Active and inactive women, who were interviewed, expressed their willingness to be part of WSI activities, but prevalent notions of men being superior to women and thus being able to participate in all such initiatives prevented women from participating . Women who went out to participate in such meetings were often a subject of gossip in the village, preventing women from going out for such meetings.
Lack of numerical strength in water related committees, meetings, and workshops were major constraining factors for women. As one woman committee member from the WSI stated, “If there were more women we would have spoken our minds. It’s difficult to speak out in a room full of men with only two-three other women around. More numbers would have led to the better articulation of our concerns.”
Women found it difficult to participate in workshops as many of them worked in the fields and they faced the risk of losing their daily labour wages for not completing activities in the fields, mainly during the Kharif and Rabi seasons. As one woman informed, “Many women deny attending workshops and meetings outside the village because they lose the wage labour of the day, amounting Rs 200 to 250.” The level of education and exposure to formal education among women and men were found to positively influence women’s participation in developmental activities and at public places. For example, it was found that women with educated husbands encouraged them to participate in water management in villages.
Inadequate female field staff, poor communication strategies, and issues involved in planning for stakeholder engagement workshops contributed to poor participation of women in meetings and workshops. While both men and women recognised the important role of women in water management, but cultural norms and the mindset of men as decision-makers, and gender roles and responsibilities acted as major deterrents in participation of women.
Men dominated the decision-making processes and the roles and responsibilities of men and women were gendered and decided by men who created barriers in women’s mobility and participation in public places. These as well as gender-based divisions of labour were found to be key barriers to women’s effective participation in water management.
Some women broke the norm and provided a ray of hope
While the gender gap was stark, the study also found inspiring stories of women who made efforts and made a difference by creating positive spaces for more engagement of women in water management. For example, the collective effort made by women in Bhoyare Khurd village in watershed development; or the effort made by Parubai from Sundarwadi to motivate women to come together to solve their water problems; the untiring efforts made by Leelabai from Godri village in Jalna to bring women together to solve their water woes and others provide evidence that things are changing and all is not lost.
The paper argues that while building awareness and capacities of communities on water management of both men and women are important, interventions in the water sector need to involve changes in the cultural values and social life in terms of decision-making powers and acknowledge the role of gender based power relations in the division of labour, and in people’s behavior. It is important to acknowledge limitations related to structural inequities while developing strategies to mainstream gender based considerations in groundwater management programmes.
At the same time, recognising the role of region-specific social relations, cultural values, power dynamics, and adjusting water management projects and programs accordingly, rather than simply targeting women’s needs is crucial while improving water governance mechanisms at different levels, argues the paper.