Gender Issues in Irrigation

To date, only a few researchers have looked into gender issues in the management of irrigation systems. Generally, it has been found that those systems are managed entirely or almost entirely by men, even though women may represent a significant minority of the farmers and/or irrigation users. Women usually are more sensitive to issues of water quality for household use, but their voices are rarely heard in decisions about water management. In addition, frequently irrigating tasks are left more to the men, although not always.

The importance of involving women in the design of irrigation systems, taking into account their roles and responsibilities, was mentioned earlier in this chapter. Elena Bastidas, for example, reported that women in selected communities in Ecuador did not go out to irrigate at night, in part for fear of their safety and in part because of household responsibilities. They did not participate in village discussions of irrigation matters for social and cultural reasons, because traditionally that has been the domain of men. However, the more educated women tended to play a greater role in irrigation decisions.201

Van Koppen has underscored similar findings but has added that 'Evidence shows that irrigation agencies have played an important role. In the past, they persistently assumed that irrigation was men's business. In a number of cases, their actions have even undermined women's existing businesses and further polarized gender relations'.202 She points out (p. 7) that inadequate access to water (water deprivation) is a central characteristic of rural poverty, and that 'neither State-sponsored and subsidized [water] development nor private investments can be termed pro-poor'.

At least some of the bias against women and the poor in irrigation design and management can be corrected by reducing the implicit gender bias in the actions of irrigation agencies, including those of international project teams:

Early inclusion of resource-poor women and men in the local forums, at the interface of the project and the community, is pivotal for their improved access to water and for poverty alleviation. In a sense, the first step to become a rights holder is to be a member of the forum that negotiates rights. Water users' organizations for operation and maintenance evolve out of these early forums. Agencies strongly steer the composition of these forums. So, inclusion

200. E. Ostrom, L Schroeder and S. Wynne, 1993, pp. 218-219.

201. Elena P. Bastidas, 'Gender Issues and Women's Participation in Irrigated Agriculture: The Case of Two Private Irrigation Canals in Carchi, Ecuador', IWMI Research Report No. 31, International Water Management Institute, Colombo, Sri Lanka, 1999.

of the resource-poor depends primarily on agency efforts.203

In addition, she recommends 'Governments and international agencies should approve new water policies and programs . . . only after an exante assessment indicates a positive impact on poor women's and men's water use, and should also monitor and evaluate the implementation'.204 In spite of cultural barriers against greater participation, the important point is that these barriers can be reduced, especially with the support of sponsoring agencies. Attitudes can change, sometimes in a short period of time. Indications along these lines were found among women farmers in Macedonia by Kitty Bentvelsen:

Do women want to participate in WUA meetings and other activities initiated by the irrigation project? In general, the interviewed women were not aware what WUAs are meant to do. After explaining, women had different reactions. One woman, who was very annoyed with the bad irrigation supply during the past years, exclaimed: "I will be the first one to go to such a meeting!" The majority of women, however, started saying that attending meetings is a man's task. But during the discussion that followed, many of them would acknowledge the importance of [attending] future WUA meetings.205

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