March 22 is World Water Day, which focuses this year on the link between water and jobs. As the latest IFPRI blog points out, this link is particularly important for women in rural areas. The majority of women in developing countries engage in agricultural work, whether that is production of food for sale in the market or more production of food for their own households in kitchen gardens. Clearly, women’s ability to access water has implications for how productive their agricultural activities will be; however, little attention has been paid to just how much women in developing countries actually have control over, and access to, water.

In many parts of the world, particularly Africa south of the Sahara, irrigation is a critical factor in successful agriculture. According to the blog’s author, however, women’s access to irrigation is often limited by technological, economic, and cultural constraints. The blog cites an intervention that distributed treadle pumps in Kenya and Tanzania; a subsequent study of this intervention found that women were less likely to receive information about the pumps than men, more often lacked the cash to purchase pumps, and were less able to actually use the pumps because they were often too heavy for women to operate. Women also faced cultural constraints because using the pumps meant exposing their legs, which was considered inappropriate. In addition, because women in many places are less likely to own land or have land titled in their name, they are often excluded from decision making regarding how water is used and distributed.

Increasing women’s access to and control of water can thus clearly improve the productivity of female farmers by making water more available for their crops, but it also has other economic implications. Making water more accessible for domestic use such as tending kitchen gardens and household bathing and cleaning will reduce the time women and girls spend on water collection and other household chores. The blog notes that this will free up time to engage in off-farm labor or attend school, allowing women to play a bigger role in the labor market.

A similar study on women and water insecurity from ODI Insights supports these findings with two case studies from Malawi and Ethiopia. Both countries depend on rain-fed agriculture and face seasonal patterns of low rainfall and food insecurity. Despite the fact that the majority of women in these countries are engaged in agricultural production, however, the study found that they have very limited access to resources, credit and financing, land rights, and decision-making ability. Women also disproportionately bear the burden of water collection for household use; the study cites that in Africa south of the Sahara, households spend approximately half an hour on a single trip to gather water, and that this responsibility falls primarily to women and girls. These time and resource constraints often prevent women from utilizing irrigation and engaging in other income-generating activities, thus reducing overall agricultural productivity and impeding progress on food security and poverty goals.

The study presents several policy recommendations for increasing women’s access to water. First, investments should be made to enable collective action such as women’s farming groups and savings and loan programs targeted at female farmers. Such programs have had success in Malawi, according to the paper, where women have been able to pool their resources to rent treadle pumps; renting equipment together allowed them to share the risk and labor, as well as the profits. Another collective action group in Malawi combines both men and women and has allowed participants to better negotiate market prices and gain access to scarce irrigable land.

Second, irrigation programs should be used as a channel to encourage improved gender relations. This can be done by engaging with local men and identifying those willing to be so-called “champions of change” and collaborate with women outside of the typical gender norms for that culture. In addition, water-based interventions can be used to monitor gender indicators such as men’s and women’s relative influence in decision-making; this can help researchers and policymakers better understand how men and women perceive their roles and identify ways to improve gender equity.

Third, irrigation programs should take a more gender-sensitive approach to communication of information and delivery of services for female smallholders. Tailoring interventions to fit women’s priorities and needs can increase uptake of irrigation technologies, improving women’s livelihoods and economic productivity and enhancing overall food security in the region. For women employed in commercial irrigation value chains, the study recommends ensuring appropriate safeguards such as formal contracts and accessible childcare to ensure that women are able to effectively enter, and remain in, the workforce.

Both water and women play a key role in agriculture. Taking the steps to properly link the two will help increase productivity, ensure food security, and drive economic growth.

By: Sara Gustafson, IFPRI

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