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Shifting Gender Relations in Agriculture and Irrigation in the Nepal Tarai-Madhesh

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Report

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Abstract

This report explores how women perceive participation and empowerment vis-a-vis access to water and other agricultural resources in the Tarai/Madhesh of Nepal. The report argues that gendered vulnerability is indeed intricately connected with other axes of difference, such as caste and economic status, despite women’s critical role in agricultural production and their active engagement in access to water and irrigation in agriculture. Overall, women’s well-being seems to have decreased as a consequence of male out-migration. However, there are women who have also become empowered in new ways, taking up enterprise opportunities.The authors point out that at the level of policy and external development interventions, a dominating narrative on women’s limited participation in agriculture being a result of ‘social norms’ exists. Public irrigation agencies have used this myth to absolve themselves of the responsibility for ensuring gender equality in program implementation.The report concludes that strengthening equitable irrigation user groups alongside capacity building for farmers and program implementers are critical measures for improving women’s access to irrigation and overall well-being. Women should be ensured meaningful participation, including leadership roles.Finally, this report recommends linking irrigation user groups to other income-generation schemes, and facilitating access to better credit, finance and agricultural inputs. The Eastern Gangetic Plains of Nepal, known as the Tarai-Madhesh, have a deeply inequitable social structure. Poverty is deeply entrenched as a consequence of class inequalities, legacies from a feudal tax hierarchy and inequitable landlord–tenant relations. Deep-rooted gender disparities are endemic. In recent years, growing male out-migration has resulted in new patterns of gendered vulnerability, with women increasingly tasked with managing and accessing irrigation. While these women generally experience economic insecurity and increased work burdens, their experiences are highly dependent on their class, ethnicity and religion. In addition, women’s access to credit and state subsidies, as well as their capacity for engaging in enterprises and other activities, also determine the risks and opportunities they face.Understanding the realities of women in the Tarai-Madhesh, including the complex interrelations between the social, economic, historical and cultural factors that shape their lives, is a prerequisite for effective agricultural development programs and strategies.Therefore, this report explores how women perceive participation and empowerment vis-a-vis access to water and other agricultural resources. The authors draw on fieldwork carried out over 6 months in 2015 and 2016. The work focused on communities in two districts of the Tarai-Madhesh – Sunsari and Siraha – selected for this study due to their dependence on access to canal water and groundwater irrigation, respectively.The data indicate that gendered vulnerability is indeed intricately connected with other axes of difference, such as caste and economic status. As a result, many women’s well-being has decreased as a consequence of male out-migration, but some women have also become empowered in new ways, taking up enterprise opportunities and active roles in water user groups.However, in Sunsari district, women’s roles within water user associations for canals were found to be marginal and largely tokenistic. This is despite women’s critical role in agricultural production and their dependence on access to canal water. In Siraha district, women from poorer households without their own pumps faced challenges in accessing groundwater. However, the biggest challenges pertaining to groundwater access were identified as institutional weaknesses.At the level of policy and external development interventions, the authors identified a dominating narrative on women’s limited participation in agriculture being a result of ‘social norms’. Public irrigation agencies used this myth to absolve themselves of the responsibility for ensuring gender equality in program implementation. It was found to divert attention away from gender discrepancies within public irrigation agencies, thereby preventing a reflexive and critical effort on greater gender equality within the bureaucracy.The authors conclude that strengthening equitable irrigation user groups, along with capacity building for farmers and program implementers, is critical for improving women’s access to irrigation and overall well-being. Women should be ensured meaningful, rather than tokenistic, participation, including leadership roles. It is recommended to link irrigation user groups to other income-generation schemes and let cooperation across groups facilitate access to better credit, finance and agricultural inputs.

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