Gender Dimensions of Neoliberal Water Policies in Mexico and Bolivia: Empowering or Disempowering?


Ahlers, Rhodante. 2005. “Gender Dimensions of Neoliberal Water Policies in Mexico and Bolivia: Empowering or Disempowering?” In Opposing Currents: The Politics of Water and Gender in Latin America, edited by Vivienne Bennett, Sonia Dávila-Poblete, and María Nieves Rico, 53-71. Pittsburgh, PA: University of  Pittsburgh Press.

Author: Rhodante Ahlers


Increased industrial and domestic demand for water, waning supplies of fresh water, in conjunction with global economic liberalization trends have prompted international development bodies to shift towards defining water as a commodity rather than a basic human right. Ahlers uses cases from Mexico and Bolivia to illustrate how increased privatization and use of market mechanisms perpetuates and legitimizes institutional and social barriers women face in formal and informal access to water. The “one-size-fits-all” approach to privatization currently favored by transnational neoliberal institutions solidifies and exacerbates existing gender inequalities and ignores culture-specific values of water.


“An emphasis on individual and formal rights for women disregards the complexities of local definitions and practices of rights not reflected in state law or recognized by state institutions, with serious consequences for those social groups dependent on the primary titleholder.” (60)

“As multiple values of water are attributed simultaneously, reducing water to a mere economic, monetary value is alienating. Water users move in a constellation of multiple and intersecting inequalities that both limit their scope of choice or force them into making certain choices. Their choices are not solely informed by cost benefit analyses but also by empathy, solidarity, and collective action.” (60)

“Where before the collective served as a buffer, now the individual has to solve her or his problems without community support. Women in marginalised households who do have titles need to sell their land and/or water for a pittance to sustain their families. Those women without titles are cut off from the informal avenues of access to land and water altogether. Formalizing water rights, therefore, could very well discriminate against women’s access to property rights, rendering obsolete their investments in labor, knowledge, and networking. Furthermore, the buyers in this water market are all male, which raises the concern that not only do market mechanisms reproduce gender inequities, they exacerbate them.” (65)

“As the debate over water privatization continued, male and female farmers began to withdraw from dealing with the state, insisting on the protection of their local usos y costumbres … the increasing alienation from the state is taking water users to a traditionalist refuge, one that could well conceal and reproduce gender inequalities.” (68)

Topics: Civil Society, Development, Economies, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equity, Globalization, Rights, Human Rights, Property Rights Regions: Americas, North America, South America Countries: Bolivia, Mexico

Year: 2005

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