Women Are Weak When They Are Amongst Men’: Women’s Participation in Rural Water Committees in South Africa


Hemson, David. 2002. “‘Women Are Weak When They Are Amongst Men’: Women’s Participation in Rural Water Committees in South Africa.” Agenda: Empowering Women For Gender Equity 52: 24–32.

Author: David Hemson


In this article, Hemson uses existing quantitative studies on water development projects in South Africa to formulate a series of conclusions on the potential for water management to function as a mechanism for the empowerment of women. He argues that one of the primary reasons for the failure of some water projects is the exclusion of women from leadership roles and meaningful participation (despite the fact that it is women’s lives that are most directly affected by changes in water policy). When women are included in these committees, they are often present as a token of gender inclusion (to comply with new government requirements), they are never given substantive leadership roles, and they rarely verbally participate. Even in communities where prevalent male migration has given women greater decision-making responsibilities, there is a tendency towards “deferred participation,” meaning that women postpone decision-making out of psychological deference to the absent male. Hemson concludes with a series of recommendations for improving women’s participation in water management, including provision of / access to adult education, gender-sensitivity training, and technical training.


“This [the transformation of water provision into a public and political issue] has produced a marked divergence between domestic responsibilities and the public administration of water. While women have responsibility for family health and access to water, both menial and domestic issues, water projects are prestigious and public; this has led to the domination by men who feel most capable in this sphere.Thus women remain responsible for domestic water supply but without the power to ensure that delivery is effective and continuous.” (30)

Topics: Civil Society, Development, Gender, Women, Gender Roles, Infrastructure, Water & Sanitation Regions: Africa, Southern Africa Countries: South Africa

Year: 2002

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