As we celebrated International Women’s Day this week and used the opportune moment to advocate for further gender equality and empowerment, we also reflected on numerous themes that impact women in the water in agriculture sector. They include access (to water, finance, energy, land, markets, knowledge), decision-making and rights, equipment and engineering geared to male users, gender-blind irrigation service provision and skewed gender balances from the smallest Water User Associations to the largest international organizations, but perhaps most astoundingly, the sheer lack of recognition of women as irrigators and water users, even when women are increasingly taking over farming— today, more than half of smallholder farmers are women.
As more men migrate from rural areas to cities to look for better jobs, women are taking over and have become primary growers of tomorrow’s food. Their role as customers of irrigation services in finding appropriate solutions to improving irrigation management and inclusion is increasingly important. They not only have to battle an overall disregard of the needs of users - male or female - from institutions, they also must bring their specific needs and demands to the table.
Yes, we have come a long way in ensuring we incorporate a gender lens to development programs. But a lot more work is still needed particularly in recognizing women’s ability and capability in the sector. A call for equality is very essential, but the upbeat message of empowerment and a happy headcount of women participating in consultations (which we sometimes are guilty of in our projects), may miss a deeper focus on the reasons why women are not empowered in the first place. We think it is fair to say that many of the fundamental issues have not yet been addressed.
In the end, gender equality is also about strong investments (through energy, cash resources, and political will) in fixing structural issues. We also need to work on making sure:
- More women are hired and employed in irrigation agencies so these agencies recognize and take into account theirs needs, which are different than men, including a more holistic view at multiple water services simultaneously (crop and livestock watering, drinking, washing, hygiene);
- Recognize what women can bring to the table, not just their needs and concerns, but also their knowledge in agriculture and planting.
- Fight for secure land and water tenure and livelihood security for women so they do not have to tolerate abuse.
- Organize child-care so that farm labor is not twice as hard as it is for men, while also realizing that farmers are also women and schoolgirls needing to overcome period poverty.
- Rather than co-opting women in a patriarchy-dominated decision making process, allow women to be more creative and liberating in changing those structural norms.
As we celebrate achievements and advocate for gender equality and empowerment, let’s push the agenda further. It might be incremental and it will have to be context-specific, but let’s seize opportunities. Advocating for women in the sector not only requires re-balancing power between men and women; it needs a transformation.