Gender Barriers to Irrigation Technologies in Nepal
This post was written by Gitta Shrestha, national researcher — Gender, Social and Environmental Justice, International Water Management Institute (IWMI).
In contexts with high male migration, the “feminization of labor,” including those in agriculture, has become a common sight these days. The feminization of agriculture labor activities refers to a process of women shouldering more and more agriculture activities, including those previously done by men. In addition to the unpaid household and care responsibilities, women are increasingly expected to contribute to community activities as well in the absence of men in the household. In such a scenario, irrigation technologies are viewed as labor and a time-saving approach contributing to achieving women’s economic empowerment.
Access to irrigation technologies, such as drip and solar-powered irrigation pump technology, for instance, has proven to be beneficial for enhancing women’s income through easy access and efficient use of irrigation water for high-valued cash crops, such as vegetable farming. However, a literature review conducted as part of the Cereal Systems Initiative for South Asia, reveals that women’s access, control and benefits from irrigation technologies are constrained by gender norms and relations deeply engrained in formal and informal institutions. Thus, compared to men, these technologies are less adopted by female farmers.
Unequal access to resources and opportunities
Land is a foremost prerequisite for reliable access to water sources (for example, borings) and technologies. Entitlement to land confers the formal title of being a “farmer” that determines formal and informal eligibility criteria for accessing credits and subsidies on irrigation technologies, such as solar irrigation pumps, submersible pumps or deep tube wells. Land entitlement also determines farmers’ access to technology-related information, training and extension services. A large percentage of female farmers and marginal sharecroppers are involved in farming. However, in the absence of land entitlement, they are devoid of the necessary resources, training and opportunities imperative for improved and sustainable agriculture economies. For instance, evidence suggests that landless women and marginal sharecroppers are yet devoid of membership in irrigation user groups and opportunities to participate in agro-irrigation training. This renders their status to just helpers and laborers and increases their dependency on landowners for irrigation technology and water.
Irrigation technology and enhanced access to irrigation water
The advent of irrigation technologies, such as diesel, electric and solar pumps, has resulted in improved access to irrigation water, particularly in the plains of Nepal. This has also resulted in the rise in sharecropping practices by women and marginal farmers. Nevertheless, in the absence of land entitlement and financial ability to invest in expensive irrigation technologies, women and marginal farmers rely on rental markets and bear expensive irrigation costs more than large farmers. For instance, a subsidized agriculture meter charges a farmer approximately 4 rupees per unit of usage. In the rental market, those who rely on shared agriculture meters pay the double cost. Similarly, poor and marginal farmers use expensive diesel/petrol-led irrigation pumping due to a lack of awareness and access to fuel-efficient pump technologies and irrigation management practices.
Women with a migrant husband or sons, and single women in particular, are impacted adversely in terms of high production cost, delayed irrigation and the consequent low productivity and crop failure. It is because irrigation is yet perceived as a riskier and masculine (requiring physical strength) job. In most cases, women rely on men for activities ranging from transporting irrigation pipes and engines for irrigation, operation and maintenance of irrigation equipment, and irrigating the fields. Timely irrigation demands social interaction with men in purchasing fuel, transporting and installing pumps, or sharing use of irrigation equipment. Mobility and interactions with men often bring mistrust and negative commentary, e.g., accusations of illicit relationships with other men. Women suffer increased vulnerabilities in the process of negotiating with landowners and money lenders while arranging a loan with an incidence of violence and humiliation. Technology access and adoption also vary by intrahousehold power dynamics. It determines the power to control and benefit from the technology. At times, access and adoption do not guarantee control and benefit for women. Furthermore, women’s experiences of access and benefit are shaped by overlapping identities (e.g., caste, class and age), which is seldom considered in policies and project interventions. Consequently, subsidies, low-interest loans, technical services support, agriculture insurance and similar services targeted at women and smallholders are accessed by socioeconomically privileged farmers and landowners, many of whom do not farm themselves.
Gender-responsive irrigation technologies
It is time that the sectoral policy and program interventions show serious commitment toward a gender-responsive and pro-poor approach that can respond to different needs and experiences of women and marginal farmers from various socioeconomic backgrounds. Their participation in decision-making should be ensured from the beginning in technology design, deployment, usage and benefits. It is important to address the shallow targeting of women in policy and program interventions, and to enhance access to resources and capabilities of genuine farmers. Policy and program interventions must be aligned to changing rural aspirations, supporting sustainable and inclusive development of rural agrarian societies.