Where Are the Women? Transformative Strategies Needed to Accelerate Gender Mainstreaming in Small-Scale Irrigation Projects in Ethiopia
This post was written by Likimyelesh Nigussie, research officer for governance and inclusion, International Water Management Institute (IWMI), Ethiopia; Thai Thi Minh, senior researcher for innovation scaling, IWMI, Ghana; and Petra Schmitter, principal researcher for climate change adaptation, IWMI, Sri Lanka.
Achieving gender equality in irrigation can result in greater agricultural production, income and job opportunities for male and female smallholder farmers from diverse social groups, as well as greater climate resilience in sub-Saharan Africa.
At the same time, designing and implementing irrigation development projects with little or no understanding of gender relations can unintentionally exacerbate gender disparities and even create gender inequalities and new barriers for women.
Gender mainstreaming in Ethiopia
Recognizing this, national irrigation agencies, donors and researchers in Ethiopia have been assisting project implementers to integrate gender issues into the planning and implementation of irrigation programs. While efforts to close gender gaps in irrigation have been increasing, little is known about how interactions among institutions at different levels may determine the success of gender-mainstreaming activities. Indeed, gender mainstreaming has been criticized for focusing more on the impacts on the development institution itself than on project participants and others.
A new IWMI research report argues that successful gender mainstreaming in irrigation development is possible, but requires holistic strategies focusing on transformation at different levels. The report, supported by the Feed the Future Innovation Lab for Small-Scale Irrigation (ILSSI) and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO)-funded project Water Productivity Open-Access Portal (WaPOR) Phase 2, presents a qualitative analysis of institutional interactions and their impact on gender-mainstreaming strategies.
Specifically, the study analyzes how institutions’ rules, roles and capacities at four levels — state, market, community and household — shape the strategies in nine small-scale and microirrigation development projects. Finally, it offers practical recommendations for developing transformative gender mainstreaming to achieve better equality outcomes in Ethiopia’s irrigation sector.
Rule-based versus role-based strategies
“Rule-based strategies are gender-mainstreaming strategies that emphasize developing guiding documents and capacities of individuals and institutions to ensure gender equality. Meanwhile, role-based strategies are gender-mainstreaming strategies that emphasize transforming gender roles and gender relations to ensure gender equality,” says Likimyelesh Nigussie, research officer for social sciences, IWMI, Ethiopia.
The results show that rule-based strategies adopted by small, scheme-based irrigation projects (irrigation infrastructure for less than 100 hectares of land) emphasize policies and rules for equal rights and opportunities to participate in irrigation projects and the capacity development of individuals and institutions.
On the other hand, role-based strategies adopted by projects promoting small and micro-irrigation technologies (for individual households to use) focus on challenging social norms to address the imbalance of power and workloads by developing the capacity of all stakeholders, including female and male farmers. Both strategies promote targeting female farmers and use participatory approaches to ensure gender equality.
However, several challenges exist that restrict the effectiveness of these strategies. They include a lack of financial resources to implement national gender policies, women’s limited access to and control over land and water resources, and negative stereotypes about women from families, communities and the private sector that often make it difficult for gender mainstreaming to succeed.
In terms of irrigation technologies themselves, there is minimal gender-differentiated data and information available on preferences, needs and practices. Consequently, technology suppliers often use a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, women prefer technologies that can save time and labor and provide alternative water sources for backyard gardening.
However, the number and type of gender-responsive technologies on the market, at farmer training centers or in plots managed by model farmers are inadequate. Furthermore, poverty, women’s position within the household and community, and limited access to natural and financial resources make it difficult for women to adopt irrigation technologies equitably.
Making gender-mainstreaming strategies transformative
“We can see from the results that analyzing rules, roles and capacities at all levels allows institutions to develop a holistic and multilevel view of gender equality and mainstreaming,” says Thai Thi Minh, senior researcher for innovation scaling, IWMI, Ghana. “These perspectives provide practitioners with insights about opportunities for and barriers to gender equality at each level, the interconnections among barriers and opportunities, and areas where transformative approaches may be needed.”
Specifically, transformative gender mainstreaming requires:
- Enacting policies, creating an institutional environment and developing governance mechanisms for mainstreaming gender.
- Enhancing the accountability system and adoption of gender-transformative approaches to involve more female farmers in designing, planning and management.
- Creating a supportive institutional environment at the market, community and household level to transform gender relations that help female farmers invest in irrigation.
- Applying an intersectional lens in gender analysis and mainstreaming.
Although the research focuses on Ethiopia, gender mainstreaming is a global issue, and applying a multilevel institutional lens to understand it in irrigation development is broad and potentially relevant in other locations.