World Water Week 2017, from running from August 27- September 1 and organized by the Stockholm International Water Institute (SIWI) explores the theme of water and waste (reduce and reuse). Water clearly plays a crucial role in global development, impacting agricultural production, economic growth, health and nutrition, and the environment. In a new report from the World Bank, researchers examine another important facet in the conversation about water and development – gender equity.

Utilizing a review of literature since 1990, the report combines the work of the World Bank’s Global Water Security and Sanitation Partnership (GWSP) and Gender Strategy and emphasizes the importance of understanding local gender contexts before designing and implementing water-related interventions and programs.

According to the report, the gender issues that often come up when discussing water often reflect broader gender and societal inequalities. These include ownership and control of assets, division of labor, risk management, decision-making, and employment and wages. In addition, water-related practices and customs (such as taboos, rituals, and informal institutions) often reinforce the status quo, which can result in increasing gender inequity. Thus, water interventions that take gender relations into account can have broader societal impacts by chipping away at those inequities.

The report looks at water through the lens of assets, services, and space; in this blog, we will look exclusively at water as an asset. Chapter 2 of the report discusses water as an asset, examining how men’s and women’s access to and use of that asset can differ. Agriculture is the largest employer of women in low- and lower-middle-income countries, according to the report. For example, in Africa south of the Sahara, over 60 percent of all employed women are engaged in agriculture. Agriculture – specifically work on family farms and kitchen gardens – also accounts for much of women’s non-paid labor in developing countries. Despite women’s large role in agriculture, however, women often face exclusion from ownership of property in developing countries, including land and water rights. According to the report, this exclusion can limit their access to other important development services as well. For example, research has shown that women may be less likely to receive agricultural extension services and irrigation technology if they do not own land and other assets or if they hold only small plots of land. This limits these farmers’ ability to improve their yields or their resource management practices.

In addition, women’s exclusion from property ownership can limit their access to credit because they lack the collateral that banks often require for loans. This lack of access to credit can in turn limit women’s ability to invest in their household and in income-generating activities that can improve welfare. The report suggests that water-related policies and programs could include group lending or microfinance initiatives to assist people without assets. In addition, governments and development partners should target extension and information services to small farmers, including women, who do not own the land on which they work. Recent research from Malawi found that providing information jointly to both men and women can be particularly beneficial for improved agricultural production and household nutrition. These efforts could increase agricultural production and boost overall economic growth, while at the same time helping to reduce inequities between male and female farmers and between small and larger farmers.

Chapter 2 also discusses the issue of women’s unpaid water-related work. In households that lack running water, it is often women’s responsibility to fetch water from nearby water sources; often this involves several hours spent on unpaid work, according to the report. The UN reports that women’s time spent on collecting water and other unpaid work has declined in recent years due to improved infrastructure, smaller family sizes, and increased employment opportunities, and it is often assumed that this decrease in the time spent on unpaid work frees up women’s time to engage in income-generating activities. However, as the World Bank report points out, more research is needed to determine whether this is actually the case. Cultural norms or a lack of control over their own time allocation could still preclude women from entering productive employment. The report cites a study in Benin, in which it was found that when boreholes were constructed with the aim of reducing women’s unpaid workload, the time saved was in fact reallocated and spent to work on the husbands’ fields, rather than to their own economic activities. Thus, improving water infrastructure may not necessarily translate into more women entering formal, productive employment. This highlights the need for water interventions to take into consideration existing gender dynamics in order to be truly effective and inclusive.

In addition to looking at water as an asset, the report also examines how the risks posed by water – including flood and drought – can impact men and women differently. Many countries have enacted social safety net programs to help protect vulnerable populations in the event of a weather shock. As the report finds, some of these programs have been successful in including women. For example, Bangladesh’s Employment Generation Program for the Poorest, launched in 2008, included specific quotas for female participants, along with incentives for program administrators to meet those quotas. Similarly, India’s Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) also garnered many women participants, according to the report.

Despite the successes of some social safety net programs, however, women in developing countries are often more negatively impacted by rain shocks. One study cited by the World Bank report finds that in rainfed, rice-producing regions in India, reductions in rainfall lead to greater losses in wages for women than for men, thus increasing the gender wage gap in low rainfall years in these areas; the study suggests that this may be the case because women are often more engaged in the cultivation of rainfed crops like rice, which has been documented on the India Food Security Portal.

The report concludes that because water touches on nearly every aspect of life, particularly for agricultural households, interventions to address water use and gender equity need to be multi-sectoral rather than focusing on water as a stand-alone issue. Water-related interventions need to take into account many other factors, including agriculture, health, nutrition, energy, risk management, and the environment. In addition, interventions need to have a broader understanding of the gender dynamics and cultural and societal norms at play in specific areas in order to ensure that they are truly effective in improving access to and use of safe water for everyone.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

Post new comment
The content of this field is kept private and will not be shown publicly.