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Reframing Women’s Empowerment in Water Security Programs in Western Nepal

This is an excerpt from a blog that was published on Oxfam Views and Voices under the title "Why access to water may not benefit all women equally" and published on the WLE Thrive Blog

Global discourses on water security are taking on social concerns now more than ever. Whereas such discourses often portray women as victims of water insecurity, there is a much more limited attention to how gender, intersecting with other social identities, shapes the distribution of benefits of water development projects. In other words, providing water access to women does not automatically translate into empowerment and neither does it benefit all women equally.

In our study of water security projects in Western Nepal, we found that the contribution of water security projects to women’s empowerment was limited by technical and managerial models of development (Leder et al. 2017). Water development projects need to pay attention to the many identities that produce social inequalities for the most marginalized women to benefit. They also need to understand women’s empowerment through the web of social relationships that exist within and beyond households and communities.

Understanding Empowerment

Water security interventions have increasingly claimed to contribute to women’s empowerment. However, what constitutes women’s empowerment is rarely defined and often narrowly understood as economic empowerment or increased decision-making over practical needs. The current use of the term fails to recognize that women’s empowerment is not only about economic change; it is also about political and social change, gender inequality, class and caste.

The two projects we analyzed envisioned that enhanced access to water for both domestic and productive uses will lead to women’s empowerment through a linear pathway. However, we found that local political and social factors, such as class caste, age, family situations and social relationships complicate such linkages to produce non-linear outcomes.

The Importance of Family Dynamics

Initiatives that exclusively target women and ignore men, older women or girls are likely to have a limited effect on empowerment. In many households in Western Nepal it is normal for women to seek permission from their husbands and mothers-in-law in order to leave the house to participate in village related activities, such as water management discussions. Development practitioners seeking to improve the agency of young women need to address gendered perceptions of young men as well as older women.

In Western Nepal, many of the family dynamics that limit a woman’s agency, however, have begun to shift because of the changing patterns of long-term male out-migration for work opportunities. In addition, many families have moved to a nuclear family set-up, limiting the role of the mother-in-law. The combination of these two factors has increased women’s visibility and has allowed women to have the opportunity to occupy spaces traditionally reserved for men, such as representing their household when attending meetings of water user groups.

Local Power Relations and Geographical Inequalities

Local power relationships and the spatial and physical set up of villages also largely determine who benefits from water intervention projects. In the western hills of Nepal where households are spread across large areas with a high topographic gradient, it is often difficult for projects to provide water access to everyone. Across the four case study villages, we observed that mostly affluent and politically connected households had the greatest ability to benefit from project water interventions. Unless projects have an affirmative strategy to identify and reach out to the most marginalized, they hold the risk of exacerbating inequalities and conflicts around water access.

Identifying Barriers of Caste

Lastly, a narrow focus on women without attention to how gender intersects with other social identities to shape power relationships can lead to counter-productive results. Two powerful examples:

  • To fulfil the project’s gender and social inclusion objectives to include Dalits (formerly called "untouchables") and women in meetings, staff often selected female Dalits. This resulted in meetings comprised mostly of only Chettri (high caste) men and Dalit women, creating a double barrier for Dalit women to influence decision-making processes as they were uncomfortable being overheard when expressing their views in this context.
  • In one of the case study sites Dalit women were dependent on upper caste women for water collection because they are not allowed to touch natural spring water. According to customary Hindu beliefs Dalit women will contaminate water sources upon touching them. In some project sites where newly installed water systems disproportionately improved water access for upper caste women over Dalit women, Dalit women met increasing difficulty to access water. Fewer upper caste women were available around natural springs to fill Dalit women’s water vessels as they had access to taps close to their homes. This resulted in many Dalit women either having to spend more time arranging for upper caste women to fetch them water or collecting murky water from the river.

A Way Forward

Our analysis has highlighted that relationships linking water resource development and women’s empowerment are complex and highly location and household specific. Inter- and intra-household relations of different kinds, including caste, age, and family composition and positioning, have to be taken into account when aiming at empowering women through water security interventions. To improve the state of women’s empowerment through water intervention projects, we offer the following recommendations:

  1. Ensure rigorous gender analysis at the planning stages of a project to allow targeted approaches with the maximum potential for increasing diverse women’s agency.
  2. Focus on building confidence and capacity among diverse men and women within communities before intervening technically.
  3. Design training interventions that cater to the specific needs of different demographics and land ownership statuses. For example, involve landless farmers in a meaningful way, provide childcare to involve daughters-in-law and adjust timings to include female-headed households.
  4. Introduce participatory gender trainings for field staff and farmers, so they can become sensitized to the differences individuals and households face in water resource access and agency. Center discussions of gender and caste discrimination with farmers, so that solutions for more inclusive project implementation can be created.
  5. Involve all types of family members in gender trainings so that everyone can best support female family members, especially wives and daughters-in-law.
  6. Make regular assessments of social inequalities in water security programs, particularly to understand how multiple social markers intersect and shape water access. Discuss with diverse female and male farmers through participatory methods, such as empowerment mappings and gender position bars, and adjust interventions accordingly.