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Vivienne Bennett is Professor of Border Studies in the Liberal Studies Department at California S...

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Michael Foley

Water, gender and food security

Vivienne Bennett | 12 February 2013

It is crucial to be aware of deeply-rooted gender structures and to create gender-equity in land tenure, in order to guarentee both water and food security.

Worldwide, more than two billion people are malnourished. This means that one quarter of the world’s population suffers from food insecurity. Food security, as well as national food sovereignty, depends on adequate water availability. Approximately 70% of freshwater is used for agriculture. Without sufficient water available at the right times, crops and animals die. In the world of small-holder farming, most roles in the production process are gender-assigned. Around the world, women and men farm different crops and tend to keep different animals, which in turn have differing water needs. Knowledge about water usage, knowledge that affects food security, is gendered. Women’s knowledge about water needs and uses differs from men’s; yet, this knowledge is equally essential to family economies and community well-being. However, the water world, especially (but not only) with respect to small-holder irrigation, is still heavily masculine. Men control the formal rights to water through land ownership; they control decision-making about irrigation by being the head-of-household. 

Irrigation is a complex process involving the allocation of an uncertain commodity (water) using a labour-intensive process of opening and shutting valves connecting main canals to irrigation ditches. This process requires extensive collaboration and negotiation amongst water users. Worldwide, these negotiations take place among men. Women are not welcome, or, if they attend such meetings, they rarely speak. Often, deals are made informally over beers in bars where women cannot set foot. No surprise then that it is often the men’s crops that receive irrigation water while women’s crops remain rain-fed.

When economic hardship forces male family members to migrate to find paid work, women are left in charge of the farming. They are given responsibility for the crops and animals but not the corresponding right to engage in decision-making. They are stuck without the possibility of getting their farm’s water services adjusted as needed. For example, a farm that is allocated water into its irrigation ditches at night can be irrigated by a male farmer but not by a female farmer; this is due to cultural norms regulating that women not go to the fields at night and due to safety considerations. 

Development aid projects have tried to address some of these issues. Training projects have helped women become more effective participants in community meetings and have supported the opening of meetings to women. But this has a domino effect and often leads to challenges for gender relations and cultural norms outside the meetings and in the home. There’s a dual problem going on: 1. When women are not included in water management, their knowledge, experience, and expertise is not included in the process, and decisions all-too-often represent the needs of only half the population, the men, and 2. When women are included they do not have the legal rights that emanate from being the title-holder to the family’s land. As women are increasingly involved in all aspects of small-holder farming, food security depends on women having a voice in water management and on water institutions being able to incorporate women’s voices and needs.

What policy initiatives can bring positive change in the relationship between women and water management?1. Laws that make land tenure gender neutral. This is a pre-condition for access to water and to the water management process.2. Equitable land tenure laws must be implemented and enforced at the local level.3. Training programmes must be expanded that teach women farmers public speaking skills and the technical vocabulary they need to feel confident in water management meetings. (Women report being unable to speak in meetings because they do not have the right language.) In addition, support projects must be put into place for the water management institutions, communities, and families that are affected as gender roles change dramatically.

In sum, we must support women’s capacity to function effectively in the public sphere by developing laws that create equity in land tenure, by having the political will to implement such laws, and by recognizing that changing gender roles in water management requires ongoing support systems. Family and community food security depend on this.

Photo credit main picture: Michael Foley