This is a guest post by Torie Rose DeGhett. DeGhett is an American (US) staff editor for the UK-based Current Intelligence magazine, where she writes the Monday through Friday Readbook blog and edits their News Channel. Independently, she runs the blog The Political Notebook (once described by a reader as “News, Politics, and Spunk!”), where she writes about the latest in conflict, foreign affairs and gender studies, with particular focus on the Middle East and South Asia.
Water policy is rarely approached as a feminist issue. Irrigation policy, the effects of well placement and water privatization aren’t considered to be in any way gendered in mainstream discussions, and it is uncommon to include gender as an evaluative measure of such policies. However, water policy, which is fundamentally about power and control, is deeply connected to social hierarchy issues like gender, race and class. The presence of traditional gender roles, sexism and gender inequality in these policies perpetuates social stratifications based on gender and limits the opportunities for women, particularly in developing countries and more agriculturally centric economies.
Water policies (which end up being largely questions of control and access) manifest as a wide range of possibilities. Irrigation, well placement, filtration and sanitation, toilet placement and privatization spring to mind. The unifying feature is not simply that they all deal with water, but that they all affect safe access to it and individuals’ and communities’ abilities to use that water for food, health and farming, therefore intimately affecting the health and daily lives of entire populations.
Masculinised measures of expertise are often at the heart of gender exclusion. Water policy exists at the intersection of politics, economics and technology – all regions where women’s voices are routinely devalued and omitted (as are the voices of poor, undereducated or non-white communities). Property ownership is also often a prerequisite for inclusion in policy-making (most notably in Latin American countries), yet as a UN policy brief about women and water notes, women only account for a minuscule two percent of the world’s private property owners. The pervasive lack of female representation in formal politics (from cabinet positions to parliamentary office) worldwide is another factor in the gender imbalance of policy formation. The marginalisation of voice and the minimization of poor and female groups is a major roadblock to creating water policies that are well rounded and comprehensive. A study done on water policy efforts that overtly included women in decision-making and impact analysis found these methods to be far more effective overall in comparison to those lacking gender balance.
The routine exclusion of women and gender consideration in water control decisions creates a culture of imbalance and systemically undermines and invalidates the livelihoods of women and girls. Not only is this a structural flaw in the economic, political, and social senses, it promotes a dichotomy between male and female as valid and invalid. From a feminist perspective, policies that ignore and exclude women and both directly and indirectly invalidate “feminine” roles are not merely imbalanced and lacking in comprehensiveness, but are socially corrosive and a form of structural and community-level violence against women.
Gendered social dynamics label women‘s relationship to water as a strictly feminine task. Care-giving, cleaning and food preparation are all on the list of a woman’s domestic duties (not just in the developing world, it should be said). Their experiences with health, sanitation, production and reproduction, domestic life, education and work are deeply connected to their experiences with water use and access. Not only that, but their traditional roles saddle them with the specific responsibility of fetching and providing their family with water. This is one of the most direct connections of water policy to gender issues, as decisions regarding community access to water have profound impact on women’s daily lives and duties.
The availability of water, a primary concern of water policy-making, actually has a great effect on women’s access to education and to their physical well-being. According to the UN’s 2006 Human Development report, “Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis,” women and girls in Sub-Saharan Africa spend forty billion hours per year hauling water, time that prevents them from getting educations and earning incomes. This is what is referred to as “time-poverty”. The incredible burden of providing the family with water usually outweighs the need to go to school. Many girls, once they reach a certain age, are forced to give up their educations in favour of spending their days finding and fetching water. This has a deep and cyclical impact on the lives of women: girls who are unable to get an education remain at their level of poverty and dependence and are denied the opportunity for intellectual and financial freedoms and improved knowledge that may help them live longer, healthier, more fulfilled lives.
There is evidence from the implementation of various programs that making changes to water policies in order to cut the time spent carrying water can have profound impact on women’s lives. The Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Project by the World Bank in Morocco used this evidence as its primary motivation. Over the first four years of implementation, women and girls in the target provinces saw not only a reduction in water-carrying time of twenty percent, but a dramatic increase in girls’ school attendance ranging from fifty to ninety percent.
Placement of wells, and of toilets and sanitation, also pose physical risk issues for women. The distance women have to walk to fetch water while carrying heavy water jugs is strenuous and is particularly a problem for pregnant women, who are put at an increased risk of maternal mortality and birth defects. Yet another sanitation issue is the obvious one: waterborne diseases. While these diseases affect all genders, they affect women (and children) at a greater rate because as caretakers and homemakers, they face greater exposure and tend to be less nourished. The most stomach-turning risk women face is the danger of sexual assault while finding water. The distance and the time of day at which a woman has to walk to a water source or a toilet can put her at higher risk for rape and sexual assault (see the UNDESA report). This threat to women’s dignity (their right to be free of harassment and shame) and the risk of rape are specific examples of the gender violence in which water policy takes part.
Globally, women produce over half of the world’s food supply. In some regions, that percentage can be as high as eighty percent. This makes women deeply concerned with issues of agricultural water supply and irrigation, not simply issues of domestic potable water, well placement, or sanitation. This in particular informs the argument that a water policy that fails to incorporate women’s input is fundamentally flawed. The needs of female farmers go so ignored in decisions about irrigation that most of them must depend on rainwater instead of irrigation for their agricultural needs.
Additionally, water privatization has a high impact that is disproportionately felt by women, and it is one that reverberates the most profoundly in the female socioeconomic sphere. Privatization affects those in poverty the most, and women comprise the majority of the world’s poor. Structural adjustment programs, which are debt relief loans that are given out to debt-ridden developing countries on the condition that these countries will implement economic liberalisation policies like lowering tariffs and privatising industry, are a driving force behind water privatisation in developing countries. This results in dramatic shifts in access to water and increased prices. Women, who deal with water more closely and who usually have much more limited means, are more impacted by the choices made by corporations and by price hikes.
The gendered division between public and private work in the economic sphere also affects women because the domestic uses and needs for water are not income generating and are therefore ignored by traditional methods of economic assessment. According to research done by Margreet Zwarteveen, traditional economic standpoints and methods of assessment conceive of the family as a very conventionally gendered one, one that considers the typical water users to be male and for the male head of household to be eminently capable of deciding for the women. Privatization of water limits accessibility to the natural resource and because of women’s unequal social experiences, their place in the domestic sphere and their intimate social connections to water, they are once again victims of a systemic violence, structured around traditional values, that threatens their livelihoods on a day to day basis.
The mainstream academic literature on water governance is as woefully ignorant, or as purposefully dismissive, of the gendered motivations and effects of water policies as the policies themselves. The idea of addressing gender issues in water policy may seem to some an unnecessary or perhaps an arbitrary use of feminist criticism, but it deals so specifically with the lives and health of women across the globe. It’s been noted in reports that water policies that included women in decisions and consideration made women’s lives healthier, more independent and more economically and socially empowered. The benefit to water policies themselves, and to the communities, is also measurable. When there is a greater gender balance in decision-making, the decisions themselves are more lasting and effective. Gender should become a serious consideration of water policy and water policy a serious consideration of feminism.