Water and Gender: The Unexpected Connection That Really Matters


Bennett, Vivienne, Sonia Dávila-Poblete, and Maria Nieves Rico. 2008. “Water and Gender: The Unexpected Connection That Really Matters.” Journal of International Affairs 61 (2): 107–25.

Authors: Vivienne Bennett, Sonia Dávila-Poblete, Maria Nieves Rico


“This article explains the connection between water and gender for household use as well as in the context of irrigation, focusing on poor urban women, peasants and indigenous women. It then examines the failures of water policy, including privatization, to embrace a gendered perspective and the failures of gender policy in addressing water issues. Throughout, we provide stories that show how women in Latin America have overcome or circumvented these failures to improve water management in ways that improve their daily lives” (Bennett et al. 2008, 109).
This article complements the authors’ 2005 book Opposing Currents: The Politics of Water and Gender in Latin America by furthering the investigation of the gendered impacts of water management with examples from Latin America. The authors argue that the connection needs to be made between gender and water not just in domestic water usage, but also in irrigation and agriculture (a space in which women’s roles are often overlooked). For, in constructing water development policies that are theoretically “gender-neutral,” development authorities overlook the fact that the outcomes of these policies are almost always gender-differentiated. This has become especially true in recent years as male urban migration has placed increasing numbers of women in positions of primary responsibility for the household’s agricultural operations, including irrigation management. Excluding women from water management perpetuates patriarchal power imbalances, endangers the well-being of household members (especially in the absence of a male head), and omits valuable perspectives on sustainability and community water access. Bennett et al conclude that the success of measures to improve water management practices is dependent on understanding the community, facilitating active participation from both men and women, and fostering equitable distribution of water resources-- all with an explicit acknowledgement of cultural gender roles. 
“Women already know about water management. Why is this powerful? If women already know about water management, then their knowledge, experiences and priorities will enrich policy and planning in the water sector. Bringing in women’s knowledge, experiences and priorities regarding water use alongside men’s is to implement a gendered perspective in water management. Failing to do so is to lose valuable knowledge that could have led to more effective water management.” (109)
“A gender division of labor that defines agriculture as a male occupation and women primarily as housewives, irrespective of their contribution to family agriculture, characterizes many Latin American countries, and has lead to great distortions in water management planning because women’s knowledge, experience, wisdom and needs with regards to water are left out of the planning process.” (111)
“When irrigation is identified as a typically male domain, then for women to claim water rights for irrigation explicitly challenges the norm and this means challenging the power and ability of their husbands to properly carry out their manly roles-- and doing so comes at high social costs.” (112)
“Control over water thus both depends on and accompanies control over other resources and information. Participation of women in water users’ organizations for irrigation not only improves women’s access to and control over irrigation but also may contribute to wider goals of women’s empowerment. Exclusion of women from water users’ organizations can be interpreted as denying them their economic rights and complete citizenship.” (114)
“The under-representation of women and their indirect participation not only destroys the democratic character of decisionmaking but also may negatively affect the responsiveness of organizations to the needs of women. It it more than just a symptom of gender inequality-- it is one of the factors that perpetuate it.” (115)
“Making the water world more habitable for women requires changes at many different levels and in many different arenas. It requires changing divisions of labor that currently allocate water responsibilities to women without granting them the associated rights, and it requires changing existing routines of public decisionmaking to allow women to participate.... It also requires changing the terms of water policy discussions, because reducing the gender gap in control over water is not just a direct struggle over water resources but is also—and more importantly—a struggle over the ways in which water needs are defined. ...Creating legitimate discursive, legal and organizational spaces for women to articulate and defend their water interests means that deeply embedded cultural and normative associations between water and masculinity need to be challenged.” (123)

Topics: Civil Society, Development, Gender, Gender Roles, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Gender Equality/Inequality, Indigenous, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, Rights, Women's Rights Regions: Americas, Central America, South America

Year: 2008

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