Water in Latin America: The Importance of Gender Relations

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Council on Hemispheric Affairs - COHA

Water in Latin America: The Importance of Gender Relations

Nidya Sarria

Intergovernmental organizations (IGOs), private corporations, and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) have explored possible solutions to the worldwide water crisis in the past. Consequently, water policy has been shaped by debate, discussion, and field work alike. As these players refine their arguments and sharpen policy, their focus will shift to reflect the realities of the contemporary world. Among these shifts is a realignment of policy to reflect the perspective of the world's competition for water as a finite resource, especially for disadvantaged minorities and women.

As caretakers and homemakers, women are usually responsible for finding water according to its accessibility, availability, quality, and use. Despite their prominent role in the use and management of water, women are generally not consulted on matters of water infrastructure or policy, even though United Nations researchers suggest that the perspectives of women need to be taken into account when building wells and bettering access to cleaner water. This oversight is a blow to gender empowerment around the globe, as women remain economically subservient to their male counterparts and without formal rights to a vital resource. Recognizing the importance of women in relation to water can elevate the status of women while providing all members of society with an essential resource.

Gender Inequality in the Community

Though water has long been considered a basic need, and defined by the United Nations as a basic right in 2002, 1.1 billion people globally remain without access to potable water. In fact, only half of the world population has access to piped water. Moreover, an astonishing 2.6 billion people across the globe remain without sanitation services, even though the World Health Organization states that "water and sanitation are among the most important determinants of public health."

Women, especially minority women, suffer disproportionately due to their lack of access to clean water, even in comparison to other members of the community. In developing regions of the world, as much as a quarter of a woman's productive time is spent collecting water for her family. This time represents a staggering constraint on the ability of women to generate income. A close examination of life in Nicaragua, for instance, exposes the deep-rooted social norms that govern the lives of women and other disadvantaged members of society, impeding not only their acquisition and use of clean water in the absence of male family members, but also their power in their community.

Life in Nicaragua is rife with hardships for women, especially among the lower classes. The 15 major rivers in the Pacific region of Nicaragua are contaminated as a result of the agricultural development. Pesticides, fertilizers, and industrial waste from food processing, chicken farms, cattle slaughtering, tanneries, as well as mining and oil refineries have made water supplies unsafe to drink. Saline intrusion and high concentrations of nitrates and sulfides also play a part in the poor quality of water in Nicaragua.

This scarcity of clean water creates vast complications for Nicaraguans; although 93 percent of Nicaraguans in urban areas have legal or illegal access to water, only a handful of cities have sewage systems. To illustrate, the capital city of Managua is not equipped with a sewage system and only 34 percent of the urban population has sewage coverage. Household water management in poor urban neighborhoods and low-income rural areas is an incredibly difficult, intensive, physically demanding, and stressful daily necessity.

As in most developing nations, women in Nicaragua are responsible for most tasks involving water, including cooking, cleaning, laundry, and caring for the sick, elderly and children. Female residents of poor, urban neighborhoods obtain water for their families from community faucets that may function for only a few hours a day and service from one to two hundred families in the city. Consequently, women become responsible for rationing water in the case of a drought or water shortage. Some women might also obtain water from trucks that deliver once or twice a week. These women carry multiple pails of water home every day, usually with only the help of their children. Many women also have income-generating jobs, either maintaining home businesses or working low-paying factory jobs that produce goods for first-world consumers, further complicating their ability to provide their family with clean water. Likewise, women in rural areas face harsher conditions. Approximately 72 percent of residents in those areas do not have regular access to clean water, and typically obtain water from community wells, irrigation ditches, or nearby rivers, lakes, and streams, often becoming exposed to disease from pollutants.

Clearly, disparities between genders can be found in most regions of the developing world. Nevertheless, though women face overwhelming odds, they have still sought increasing rights both in policy negotiations and local decision-making. IGOs, private corporations, and NGOs are working together with national governments to secure access to clean water in the developing world. Women frequently voice their concerns at the grassroots level and attempt to play a crucial role as representatives of their communities.

Women as Representatives of Local Development

Any finite resource will be a source of contention among the various groups that compete to obtain it. Nevertheless, water resource management has traditionally suffered from an uncoordinated approach for allocating water between competing groups. The inequitable distribution of the benefits and burdens of water resources as well as the inadequate involvement of both women and men in its conservation has resulted in across-the-board environmental degradation. Moreover, community management approaches are unable to address these issues because communities are seen as a group of people with a common purpose when a community is actually "made up of individuals and groups who command different levels of power, wealth, influence and ability to express their needs, concerns and rights." Unequal relationships between men and women often place women, especially if they are poor, in a position of palpable disadvantage.

Nowhere is this unequal relationship more evident than in the lack of formal involvement of women in water-related development projects and other formal water organizations. Men comprise the majority of members in irrigators' associations as a result of the ties between membership and titles to land and water. Women are underrepresented in these associations, limiting their ability to provide input in decisions concerning the allocation of water resources. Barred from membership, women have no opportunity to become leaders in these organizations, which play an important role in their local communities.

As it is, when women participate in irrigation associations, cultural norms prevent their voices from being heard. For example, men and women participated in almost equal numbers in one small-scale irrigation project in Ecuador. Nevertheless, on average, men spoke for twenty-eight minutes while women spoke for three and a half minutes. When pressed to provide an explanation, women said that they were reluctant to voice their concerns for fear of ridicule. In a similar meeting in Mexico, women sat in the back of the room and attempted to avoid notice.

This lack of active participation by women in water organizations, reinforced by cultural norms that typically do not allow women membership or leadership, is deeply problematic. Women and men tend to have different priorities and perspectives. Water management and policy that does not take women's viewpoints into consideration nearly always becomes ineffective. In Ecuador, when community water project leaders asked men and women about their water priorities, men favored a rotational system in which they could irrigate for a shorter period with a heavier flow of water. Women, on the other hand, wanted water daily, in order to wash clothes and bathe children, as well as to use as drinking water. They expressed interest in building canals to bring water closer to their homes in addition to using water for irrigation purposes. Given the nature of most organizations, the plan with the most vocal support would be implemented, despite its inefficiency. Without the ability to argue for the plan that best suits their needs, women and their families remain at a disadvantage.

Moreover, though irrigation is seen as a male occupation, in the absence of men, many women are being forced to manage the land and provide for their family. In male-dominated communities, this can be a difficult matter. Nevertheless, while some female farmers may have access to water despite their lack of formal rights, it is important that women be recognized in the community as both irrigators and managers of water. In practice, the distribution of water to agricultural fields differs from official schedules leading most communities to exert a high degree of social control over water. Women who are not recognized as official managers of water are often left out of decision-making and barred from access to information that is typically accessible only to men who are able to maintain friendly relationships with canal operators and irrigation agency personnel. Gender differences in social relations discourage women from establishing friendships with men outside of their immediate families. Higher class male farmers are often in the position to "bluff their way" into demanding more water when convenient, while single women have no such social power.

Though this has been discussed and even acknowledged by the crafters of water policy in the past, little concrete action to rectify the problem has been taken by those IGOs, corporations, and NGOs that work with the water sector in the developing world. Although this mindset prevails throughout the water sector, a close examination of the history of water policy concludes that there have been gains among women over the last few decades. Further work on gender empowerment in development can build upon these past gains.

Progress of Water Policy

The early focus in the field of development was on supporting centralized, government-run public sector efforts. Water development was carried out by male engineers following blueprints laid out by advisers from wealthier nations while women were rarely consulted and, in fact, were often unable to participate in development as a career due to gender roles. On the whole, women in the developing world received even less recognition than in the case of their first-world counterparts.

The role of women as the managers of domestic water was formally recognized by the development sector in the 1970s and 1980s, as researchers came to the conclusion that women were the managers of domestic water in the developing world and thus, a vital constituency in water development. The involvement of women in water development and management was promoted for economic reasons. Female participation was expected to increase the efficiency of water projects due to their stake in the outcome. Women were trained as caretakers, educators, motivators, and hand-pump mechanics. Nevertheless, the costs, constraints and other barriers to women's involvement in development were never seriously discussed. Though this was the first time women were acknowledged for their potential contributions to development, recognition alone does not constitute actual solutions.

During the 1990s, a number of different trends in development emerged, leading to an ambiguous overall policy on water. The role of the state in public provision was rejected on the basis of having been costly and inefficient. Instead, the market was expected to provide basic services while the government merely enabled and regulated the private sector. Predictably, this led to a worldwide movement toward privatization, decentralization, and demand management. The global commitment to "water for all" made gender empowerment so crucial that in 1999, over 100 nations endorsed the Dublin principles. These basic rules affirmed water not only as an "economic good," but also as finite and essential to life. They put priority on privatization, water pricing, and cost recovery. Both the Dublin principles and the Environmental Summit in Rio reinforced the role of women as central to the provision, management, and safeguarding of water. But again, the gap between these economic goals and the challenges of water distribution as it relates to gender inequality was not widely discussed.

Recently, the focus has been on the role of water in women's empowerment and poverty reduction. The World Water Council hopes that almost everyone will have access to safe and adequate water and sanitation by 2025. As it stands, most policies do not reflect field evidence, which has established that women are the de facto managers of water in local communities. Most formal evaluations of water development have been superficial due to a lack of analysis on the impact of water projects and pricing policies on social relations. There is little follow-up on past water development projects, and thus it remains unclear which approaches in the past have brought about positive change for women. This lack of research and follow-up can be remedied among other ways by the increased utilization of gender approaches to water development, both by male and female development workers.

In order to address gender in development, practitioners have developed frameworks for understanding women's roles and interests, as well as methods for analyzing hierarchies of female participation. However, by mainstreaming gender issues, gender began to be viewed as a technical problem to be overcome at the risk of oversimplification and a distortion of the issues. Most organizations and institutions working to put gender issues at the forefront of the field remained internally insensitive to gender, though it is known that a gendered approach in the water sector is cost effective and creates positive impacts in the field.

Keeping this in mind, in the past, the United Nations has developed an Interagency Task Force on Gender and Water. This initiative is charged with facilitating gender mainstreaming in water-related United Nations policies and planning. In efforts to meet the Millennium Development Goals on water and sanitation, the Task Force promotes the integration of a "gender perspective" in actions for the "Water for Life" Decade, in the World Water Assessment Programme and the World Water Development Report and in the Human Development Report focusing on water resources. Certainly, the Interagency Task Force on Gender and Water is a step in the right direction.

Recommendations and Conclusion

Current and past water policy has had limited results. The United Nations has agreed that water is an economic, social, and environmental good that should be equally distributed to both men and women. Water supply services and infrastructure are economic activities; women's lack of rights to land and water, as well as on development efforts, often negatively affect their livelihoods. However, though women are defined as essential providers and users of water, the social and cultural roles of women remains poorly analyzed while their ability to pay for water is often assumed but seldom validated.

Though the international water sector, which includes such bodies as the World Bank, the Global Water Partnership and the World Water Forum, endorse privatization, this goes against the idea that water is an intrinsic right. When access to water is limited to only those with the ability to pay, women inevitably suffer the consequences. The World Bank Watch even claims that "such policies reduce access, raise the price of water for the poor, exacerbate inequalities, and reduce local control." Access to a basic water supply is a fundamental human right. Both men and women should help determine the rates of payment. In many cases, women do not have control over money, but water usage is often considered their responsibility. Increased prices for water should not apply when meeting basic human needs, including minimum water consumption for cooking and hygiene.

Moreover, there has been little to no action on women's rights to water within the context of their limited rights at home and in their communities. By educating women, nations can promote the health of the general population, as well as achieve smaller family sizes as a result of family planning. In fact, the education of women may be the single best lever for obtaining substantial reductions in fertility. Smaller families and a stable population growth can be a crucial factor in allowing nations to more adequately distribute their natural resources, including water, among their people. Educated women, too, can help shatter social norms and gender roles, using their education to become leaders in their communities, including in roles related to water policy.

Likewise, development organizations must get past the lip service they currently provide to gender empowerment issues and take a more proactive stance. These organizations must make it a priority to speak to women in the community and take their needs into consideration in addition to those needs expressed by men. For instance, irrigation system planners almost never make the connection between agriculture and the domestic use of water. In many cases, irrigation systems can be designed to provide water for both uses, leading to untold benefits for both men and women, as well as their families. Development organizations, too, must put pressure on local irrigation officials to follow official plans of operations that take both men and women into consideration. They must also take gender empowerment a step further and encourage women to take leadership roles in their local communities. Moreover, development organizations must strive for diversity within their own organization by developing gender awareness programs and public relations techniques for the purpose of better understanding women's perceptions and needs.

Nidya Sarria is a Research Associate for COHA.

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