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Viewing National Water Policies through a Gendered Lens

Despite the international recognition accorded to the key role played by women in issues around water, the extent to which India’s national water policies accommodate gender concerns remains to be examined. Based on an in-depth content analysis of the three nwps—of 1987, 2002, and 2012—this paper argues that incorporation of women in the planning, provisioning, and management of water resources continues to be disregarded. Women’s concerns in the water sector are articulated around their domestic roles and subsumed under notions of “household” and “social equity.” The larger questions of water rights of women, both in terms of access and control over decision-making, remain unaddressed.

The erratic nature of the monsoon in India and the consequent drought that engulfed nearly half the area of the country for successive years have repositioned water crisis-related issues at the centre of policymaking concerns. While much discussion has focused on the impending water scarcity and appropriate water management techniques, the question of gender continues to remain unaddressed. This is despite robust international advocacy that women suffer the most from water scarcity. In India, as in other developing countries of the world, the responsibility of collecting water and managing this scarce resource to meet diverse household needs rests with women. In addition to household uses, their requirement of water as cultivators is as important as that of the men’s and yet, this is seldom recognised not only by policymakers but also donors and academics. Even as agriculturists, women have different needs in terms of water uses other than irrigating the main crop, for instance, for watering livestock, irrigating the homestead or for domestic purposes (Meinzen-Dick and Zwarteveen 1998; Zwarteveen 1994, 1997). Empirical evidence suggests that women not only make optimum use of water in meeting multiple needs, they also have precious knowledge about the location, reliability, and quality of local water resources. However, this knowledge is systematically marginalised by planners and policymakers on the pretext of being ad hoc and “unscientific” (Agarwal 1994). Women’s participation is neither sought in planning and implementing water programmes, nor are they represented in users’ groups to ventilate their problems and challenges.

A significant body of research by feminist scholars highlighted the gender-blindness inherent in water-related policies. This lead to an apparently increased consciousness regarding the central role of women in the provisioning, management, and safeguarding of water resources way back in 1977 at the United Nations (UN) Water Conference at Mar del Plata. Since then, several initiatives—such as the International Drinking Water and Sanitation Decade (1981–90) and the International Conference on Water and the Environment (ICWE) in Dublin (January 1992)—advocated the involvement of women’s concerns in water-related issues and policies. The Dublin Statement on Water and the Environment adopted, and stated in Principle No 3:

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Updated On : 5th Dec, 2017

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