Smallholder women farmers go unacknowledged by water institutions

The original version of this piece appeared in the Kathmandu Post on Feb. 8th 2018 under the title, Unacknowledged irrigators.

Have you ever wondered how resources such as water for irrigation can become scarce and expensive amid abundance? This is happening in rural Tarai where on the one hand farmers are vulnerable to floods, but on the other hand access to irrigation water is unequal and not sufficient. This holds especially true for single women farmers with small landholdings and no legal land entitlements. Ironically, despite a stronger emphasis in national irrigation policies, in most cases, smallholder women farmers are not acknowledged as farmers by water institutions and are often excluded from local water governance mechanisms.

Lalbhauji Rural Municipality located between two giant rivers the Kandara and the Mohana offers an example of how farmers were able to successfully manage an irrigation system. Under a government scheme that introduces groundwater shallow tube well irrigation, a group of farmers collectively received a grant to install electric infrastructure for water pumping. Users have expressed how using electric pumps as opposed to diesel pumps is a welcome relief because they are cheaper and lighter to carry. While the heavy weight of diesel pumps required a bullock cart to be transported, electric operated pumps can be carried even on bicycles. Moreover, using electric pumps eliminates the burden of having to travel to far away markets in Nepal and India for diesel. Lastly, electricity is also much less expensive than diesel.

However, not all farmers were able to benefit from the electric pumps scheme. The irrigation user group was formed following certain government clauses that mandate that members of the group hold legal land titles. This causes the majority of the farmers in the municipality to be excluded from the scheme because most farmers are beneficiaries of land reform in the 1960s, and have yet to receive legal land entitlement papers from the government. As a result, only farmers with large landholdings with adjoining land have been able to benefit from the scheme. The virtue of requiring land tenure de facto excludes women and other disadvantaged groups.

What went wrong 

The Irrigation Policy (2003, 2013) has a clause that stipulates that 33 percent of the programme beneficiaries must be women. Four out of the 11 members of the irrigation group are indeed women. But, after meeting these four women, it became clear that some of the women were unaware of their membership in the group, and the other women members either did not farm or irrigate lands. Most women members are wives or sisters of men whose lands are located close together. When men in the group were asked about the inclusion of women in the scheme, they openly expressed that women were included solely because of the clause.

The scheme has benefited farmers, but not poor women irrigators. Most of the poor farmers still rent and carry diesel pumps in bullock carts to fields that are located far from their houses. Some farmers joined the groups later, yet pay a high cost per unit of electricity. The gendered distribution of responsibilities in the field poses a challenge for women whose husbands have migrated. Driving bullock carts and operating water pumps is traditionally a man’s job. Women whose husbands have migrated are thus dependent on men for irrigation. A woman farmer with a migrant husband stated she was the only woman in the village who would drive a bullock cart, but people would make fun of her. She recalled how some men in the market teased her by saying that men should wear women’s clothes and vice versa. She felt ashamed of herself. Yet, she continued to drive the cart. Nowadays, the woman’s son is old enough to drive the cart and she no longer wishes to drive it.

When asked why women find it difficult to operate engines, they stated it needed strength, and they often broke down and needed regular maintenance in which women were not skilled. Moreover, most women do not wish to take on a role that is traditionally male. Women wait for men to operate engine pumps, resulting in late seedling and in some cases, no seed germination at all. When the men are done, the women irrigate the fields with their help. Some women irrigate the fields at night, but only when there are no men at home, and they would return home no later than 11 pm or 12 am while men can irrigate the whole night.

A widow with migrant sons shared how this year she could not irrigate 10 kathas of land because there was no one to help her to carry the engine to her fields, located in the elevated lands near the Mohana River. Her crops were destroyed. Similarly, another woman with a migrant husband said, “It is difficult to arrange everything. I was busy arranging the ‘dunlop’ (the cart) all morning, now I need to arrange bullocks and then I have to worry about getting a man to drive the cart and plough the fields. To get things done is not straightforward. We have to request several people, several times.” For women farmers like her, irrigation itself entails a series of negotiations in the absence of access to the required resources and technology. For women irrigators, irrigation is not only economically expensive but also emotionally challenging.

Contextual solutions

Gender intersects with several factors including men’s migration, institutions and technology in shaping men’s and women’s access to water resources. Addressing only one of these factors without paying attention to others is likely to lead to unequal or unsustainable water access and management. Moreover, the way these factors intersect is deeply embedded in the local context, calling for initiatives and policies that are sensitive to local social norms and biophysical conditions. Such context and gender sensitive action will require not only addressing gender inequalities in the field, but also changing attitudes and organisational culture at all levels of decision making and project implementation.

Ujeli Beekay from Kuti village in Kailali, Nepal coordinates the irrigation of her own fields because her husband works in India for most of the year.

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