Gender dynamics of irrigation: making way for women leaders in Western Terai, Nepal

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By Manohara Khadka, Sanju Koirala, Manju Adhikari and Jigyasha Rai Yangkhurung

In the Western Terai region of Nepal, women farmers who irrigate their fields experience a disparity. On the one hand, women are largely responsible for the day-to-day running of irrigation systems; on the other hand, these same farmers are often excluded from planning and management decisions – particularly those made by water user associations (WUAs).

This reality is at odds with objectives set out by the Government of Nepal, which has prioritized agriculture and irrigation as key sectors for socio-economic development. The government’s fifteenth five-year plan aims to facilitate irrigation on 15 million hectares of farmland, and its Irrigation Rules 2000 calls for women members to make up at least one third of WUA executive committees.

Based on our recent field visits in Western Terai, commissioned for the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, we reflect on the barriers that prevent women from being recognized and heard, on a par with men, in the management of local water resources. We also consider opportunities that will enable women farmers to lead WUAs in the future. 

Women’s role in irrigation

Since most households in the region have at least one male member migrating abroad for jobs and education, women generally irrigate farms and maintain irrigation systems, in addition to carrying out household chores. For these women, accessing surface water irrigation has brought about some positive changes, as reported by women’s groups in the Jamara WUA:

We irrigate our fields through canal and bore-hole water and participate in cleaning and maintenance of irrigation canals. Earlier, we produced til [sesame] and arahar [lentil]. With irrigation access, we produce more crops, including vegetables, and generate income by selling them, which helps us support our families. Increased production brought a positive impact for household food and nutrition security.” 

Women groups also stated that public awareness on gender issues has led to a positive change in attitudes towards daughters and daughters-in-law. And, women have frequently managed to qualify for subsidized diesel or electric pumps, despite the land ownership certificate being in their husband’s name. 

By accessing this kind of small-scale irrigation technology, women farmers have reduced the amount of drudgery involved in managing their land. As a result, they can participate in kosh [cooperatives] and their local WUA in their free time.

But despite some positive outcomes, technical and institutional barriers prevent many women farmers from accessing information, subsidies and facilities in the Western Terai. For example, landless farmers and women from migrant households, unable to present their husband’s land ownership certificates, are deprived of benefits. In addition, we noticed that the distribution of solar irrigation pumps was inequitable: most were received by well-networked women.

Women’s absence in irrigation management 

The Government of Nepal’s commitment to gender equality, through the meaningful participation of women and gender-responsive governance, is impressive. Yet, the situation on the ground is not so positive. For example, we observed gender inequality in the recruitment of staff in irrigation programs. 

Out of 16 field technicians in the management office of the Mahakali Irrigation Project, only two were woman; and in the Rani Jamara Kulariya Irrigation Project, only three women technicians had been appointed (see this blog for further discussion on these irrigation projects). The women farmers stated that it would be easier for them to communicate their problems to female technicians, and were disappointed that so few were available.

All the WUAs we visited adhered to the government’s policy that women should fill one third of positions in the associations’ executive committees. However, while men occupied leadership positions in all WUAs and their advisory committees, women were chosen purely as members and treasurers. 

One female member of the executive committee for the Rani Kulo WUA said that even if women aspire to hold leadership positions, they are discouraged: Compared to the past, women participate in meetings and give applications for irrigation services, but when a committee is formed women are side-lined… Men suspect our capacity to lead, speak up in public and fulfil our responsibilities. I feel women can perform better if given a chance.”

Past conventions can also obstruct the recruitment of women to positions of responsibility. For example, in one irrigation scheme, where the badghar system (an informal institution) was practiced, only men held leadership positions. We also observed that one WUA had been led by the same man for over 40 years, after his father transferred the position to him. This automatic capture of leadership positions is yet another barrier for women.

Consultation with members from Water Users Association, Kulariya Branch, Rani Jamara Kulariya Irrigation Project. Photo: Manju Adhikari/IWMI.

Providing opportunities for women leaders 

Despite systemic challenges, there are opportunities to radically change the gender balance of irrigation governance. For example, instances of a few women being selected as badghar leaders are an exemplary step forward.

To create more opportunities, institutional barriers to women’s participation within irrigation institutions and programs must be tackled. This means introducing, for example, mechanisms which give WUA membership to all farmers, including those without land ownership certificates.

In addition, female applicants from the local district should be given priority during recruitment processes – as female technicians tend to prefer not to leave their families for work in another area. Appointing women, especially local women, to management roles will also provide a positive trickle-down effect – helping women farmers to voice their problems confidently.

Lastly, the perception that women don’t have the capacity required for leadership needs to change. To help with this process, women farmers who aspire to hold a leadership position in a WUA should be given the opportunity to develop the technical and soft skills required for the post.

Nexus Gains aims to facilitate all the positive changes described. In particular, it aims to develop the capacity of emerging women leaders, government officials and professionals working at the water–energy–food–environment nexus – by providing them with interactive platforms through which they can participate in technical and leadership training events for more active decision making.

Manohara Khadka is the Country Representative for the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) Nepal; Sanju Koirala is a Social Science Researcher at IWMI Nepal; Manju Adhikari is a former Consultant at IWMI Nepal; and Jigyasha Rai Yangkhurung is Senior Divisional Engineer at the Department of Water Resources and Irrigation, Nepal.

This work was carried out under the CGIAR Initiative on NEXUS Gains, which is grateful for the support of CGIAR Trust Fund contributors:


Header image: Interaction with women from Mahakali Irrigation Project area. Photo by Manju Adhikari/IWMI.

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