Selected Gender Issues in Three Water Sectors of Importance in Rural Areas:

Water and Sanitation, Environment and Agriculture.


1.      Water and Sanitation

The right to water and sanitation is for all people, in urban as well as rural areas (GA Resolution 28 July 2010).  However, the urgent need for drinking water and sanitation has different forms in rural areas compared to urban high density areas.


Piped systems for drinking water supply in rural areas are more expensive than in urban areas (longer distances), so solutions are more often sought in groundwater sources (hand pumps), and women and girls generally have to walk long distances.  In urban areas piped systems are usually available and standposts or taps are never far.


Sanitation services are much rarer in rural areas than in urban areas. This is true for toilets, sewage systems, drains for waste water collection, waste water treatment and solid waste management. Free and open defecation is not quite as unhygienic in rural areas as in urban areas.


But for schools one thing is the same everywhere -- girls tend to forfeit their right to education because of lack of water and proper sanitation facilities.


It does not need to be repeated that women and girls have the responsibility for water in the household, water for all the family members.


Women (and men) also need water for their small enterprises. There is no economic development, even at a low level, if there is not enough water. Everywhere it has been found that when there is enough water (not only for agriculture), women start to make an income for their families. 


2.      Environment

Also in rural areas industries that pollute surface and groundwater are increasing, because in many countries the policy is to move industries away from the cities. Rural women have serious problems with industrial pollution contaminating their traditional surface and groundwater sources.


Women often feel more responsible to protect the environment and to conserve water and ecosystem resources for the future, but those who are extremely poor sometimes cannot afford to think of the future, they live from one day to the next.

Pollution of water by monoculture cash crops, often non-food crops grown by male farmers, has a very negative impact on the access to water for food crops and drinking water by rural women.


3.      Agriculture

Agriculture is the most important source of income in rural areas. Women are the main farmers and producers of food crops for the consumption of the family, but also for local markets.  Often men move away to cities or to commercial farms to work, leaving the agriculture completely under the responsibility of women.


Both the right to land and the right to water are crucial for the profitability of agricultural work.


Women’s importance as farmers (and the feminization of agriculture) has been documented since the 1970s, but still their work does not get recognition. (While the CSW acknowledges the importance of women’s work, most policy makers and macro economists focus more on the food crisis.)


Women farmers may have access to some land, definitely not to the best land, and they do not usually control it. Not many have land titles, often the land they farm is owned by their in-laws or it is communal land, which is regularly re-divided by the local chief. These days that land is seen as government land which is sold to large landowners, or even to foreign countries in “land grabs”. This is how women lose the land, and why less food is being produced, contributing to the food crisis.


The right to water for irrigation is no less important than the right to land because in most rural areas rainfall is not so regular that it us adequate for the growth of crops all the time.  The types of crops women choose to grow do not usually need the massive amounts of water that some of the cash crops need, for example sugarcane and paddy rice (4 metres per crop or even more). Women farmers in Africa for example, could make great progress with small dams for irrigation to bridge the dry weeks in which many crops just die.  Thus, they need irrigation water mainly for survival of the plants during a few weeks, not the whole growth cycle. Most of the time these crops are rain fed. This supplementary irrigation would not cost much, it would conserve the environment, and increase production enormously.


But: the right to water for irrigation is often linked to the ownership of the land. Irrigation infrastructure is directed at cash crops, meant for export, meant to yield foreign revenues for the country, but without consideration of food for poor people, especially not for those in rural areas, and certainly not for women who are not even considered farmers.


Rural people who lose their land have to move to cities to work for wages, which can be earned per day, whilst agriculture, even if it is much more profitable, will only yield an income once or twice per year. If the crop fails, women farmers have lost all, they have no inputs for a new cropping season.


Therefore, for the country as a whole, for rural people and especially for rural women the right to water for irrigation is of great importance.


Empowerment of rural women resulting from access to water

Empowerment consists of four interrelated elements:

Socio-cultural empowerment is the improvement of women’s self-image and the image of the particular category, rural women in this case, in their society. Access to proper water and sanitation, and the recognition of women as farmers, will enhance their self image, called empowerment.


Political empowerment: if rural women, including women farmers, have leadership position in local government and in water users groups in which they can influence the decision-making related to water, this can be considered political empowerment.


Economic empowerment:  enough water, both for agriculture and for local enterprises, will enable rural women to improve their economic position and that of their families. Their children will be able to go to school.


Physical empowerment:  carrying water is an enormous burden which takes much energy and time of women and girls in rural areas. If clean water is available close to the household, and if proper sanitation is accessible, this would mean physical empowerment for rural women. 


Joke Muylwijk, Executive Director GWA

Marcia Brewster, Second and Third Steering Committee GWA

1 March 2012