The Water Question in Feminism: Water control and Gender Inequities in a Neo-Liberal Era


Ahlers, Rhodante and Margreet Zwarteveen. 2009. “The Water Question in Feminism: Water Control and Gender Inequities in a Neo-Liberal Era.” Gender, Place and Culture 16 (4): 409-426. doi:10.1080/09663690903003926.

Authors: Rhodante Ahlers, Margreet Zwarteveen


The current neo-liberal moment in water policy appears to offer possibilities for realizing feminist ambitions. Several feminist scholars see the individualization and privatization of resource rights as offering possibilities for confronting gender inequalities rooted in, and reproduced by, historic and structural male favoured access to productive resources such as land and water. But we seriously doubt a progressive feminist potential of neo-liberal reforms in the water sector. We focus on water used for agricultural purposes, because neo-liberal water proposals are premised on taking water out of agriculture to uses with higher marginal economic returns. A first set of doubts involves water as a specific resource, largely because of its propensity to flow. Rights to water are less fixed and more prone to be contested at various levels and in different socio-legal domains than rights to other natural resources. The second set stems from our disagreement with the ideological underpinnings of the neo-liberal project. It reflects our concern about how water reforms articulate with wider political-economic structures and historical dynamics characterized by new ways of capitalist expansion. Furthermore, mainstream neo-liberal water policy language and concepts tend to hide precisely those issues that, from a critical feminist perspective, need to be questioned. Feminist reflections about tenure insecurity and social inequities in relation to water clash with the terms of a neo-liberal framework that invisibilizes, naturalizes and objectifies the politics and powers involved in water re-allocation. A feminist response calls for challenging the individualization, marketization and consumer/client focus of the neo-liberal paradigm.


In this article, Ahlers and Zwarteveen undertake a feminist analysis of water policies and politics by studying agricultural water management in Latin America. They frame their argument in a conceptualization of water rights that refers to people’s relations and negotiations with others and with their environment, rather than on technical legal definitions. Neo-liberalism is understood as a force whose impacts on women and on social equity are largely obfuscated by efforts by policy makers to depoliticize, de-contextualize, and universalize water management issues. In light of the the current momentum of neo-liberal policies in the developing world, the authors challenge inherited feminist thought focussed on endowing women women with individual land / water rights, on the grounds that individual rights are more vulnerable to neo-liberal dispossession than usufructuary rights (especially for women) and on the fact that individualized conceptualizations of water have little relevance to the relational and negotiated informal water management structures that dominates in many developing societies.


“In theory and principle, ‘inside’ the neo-liberal water domain, all actors are equal or need to become equal… In line with this view, liberal gender or feminist strategies tend to focus on ‘equalizing’ and ‘including’ women… Such ‘equalizing’ measures and the underlying analysis overlook and ignore the social, cultural, and historical dimensions of gender inequities. Women cannot merely be added on to a Water Users Association with a title in their hands after male members and officials have been gender sensitizes, expecting entrenched structural inequalities and diverse world views to merge into a single harmonious agenda.” (417)

“The normative emphasis on the autonomous individual as the primary agent, or the separate self-model of neo-liberal policy and of some feminist narratives alike, is problematic in that it conceives of gender relations mainly as antagonistic and conflicting. The social dependencies that are intrinsic to water ownership should be neither denied nor romanticized but require a sound relational analysis that recognizes both collaboration as well as conflict, and that can be used to identify sources of security alongside sources of vulnerability in terms of water. Gender relations are neither solely harmonious nor antagonistic, but involve common interests as well as conflicting ones, emotional dependencies alongside economic support.” (418)

“Gender relations and identities interact with other social identities and relations. It is probably no exaggeration to say that the only thing most female irrigators have in common is their lack of formal rights and powers, but little can be concluded from this commonality in terms of gendered interests or needs. Gender is seldom the primary or most important axis along which water responsibilities and identities are divided, nor can water needs and interests be easily categorized on the basis of gender. What women and men do, need and want in relation to water is only partially shaped by gender, and is a function of complex social and political dynamics.” (419)

“Particularly in relation to the water sector, it is important for a feminist project to explicitly situate its analysis in the structural transformation currently taking place, embedding gender dynamics in the world historical process of privatisation.” (419)

Topics: Civil Society, Development, Environment, Feminisms, Gender, Women, Gendered Power Relations, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation, Rights

Year: 2009

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