Gender and Water Alliance

Gender and water: how to engineer a common language?

Partnership between Both ENDS, Comprehensive Assessment and GWA. Source Bulletin February 2007

“You gender people talk among yourselves in a language that is mutually acceptable but extremely difficult for ‘outsiders’ to cope with.”

“A huge attitudinal shift is called for – so that it becomes integral for the various water and agricultural specialists to understand that their work will and can affect gender-inequality.”

E-mail discussion

These are some quotes from an email discussion on gender mainstreaming in water management, facilitated by the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture (CA). This is a five year process, run by IWMI, aimed at identifying existing knowledge and stimulating thought on ways to manage water resources over the next 50 years. The final synthesis report (300-pages) is titled Water for Food, Water for Life: the Comprehensive Assessment of Water Management in Agriculture. More information from

The discussion, in which we set out to analyse why it proves so difficult to mainstream gender in water management, was part of a joint project by GWA, CA and Both ENDS, funded by OXFAM Novib. In addition, they developed a ‘minimum agenda’ that provides practical and realistic recommendations to practitioners, policy makers, researchers and gender specialists working in water and agriculture, to address gender differences and inequities genuinely and effectively in policy, research and in the field.

Survey results

In addition to the e-discussion, a survey was held under water-engineers and water-managers on the use and practicality of gender manuals and guidelines; a workshop with gender and water specialists was held; the CA chapters were scrutinised from a gender perspective; and a draft minimum agenda was presented during the 4th World Water Forum. The final results have recently been summarised (with the help of Dr Margreet Zwarteveen) and published in the Both ENDS Working Paper Series: Effective gender mainstreaming in water management for sustainable livelihoods: From guidelines to practice (December 2006).

One of the conclusions is that although there are many guidelines and manuals on how to mainstream gender in the water sector, they are not often easily accessible or applicable to the specific context, since they are often written in general terms or not available in local languages.

What has it do to with my work?

However, many water professionals and policy makers still believe that gender has little to do with their work, or see it as a separate concern which is the responsibility of gender experts. Interestingly, those working closest to water users generally have practical and hands-on gender awareness, while water professionals working in national and international research institutes and government bureaucracies often find it more difficult to understand the linkages between gender and water.

Another important conclusion is well reflected by the “you talk among yourselves” quote, above. There are many communication barriers still to overcome, not only between practitioners in the field and at higher policy levels, but also between water and gender specialists.

Views from gender experts

Gender experts sometimes feel that water experts do not invest time to understand how social relations and gender inequalities impact on their work, and vice versa. Water experts, on the other hand, feel that gender specialists do not provide them with the concrete steps they need to mainstream gender issues. They find the language and format used by gender experts difficult to work with. Clearly, continuous dialogue is needed to come to a more ‘common language’ and learn from and support each other.

To ensure that gender is effectively addressed in the water sector, researchers, policy makers, practitioners and gender specialists each have to take their own responsibility – and make serious attempts to address and make use of differences between men and women of various backgrounds. The minimum agenda presented by this project provides some first concrete steps for each of us to take.

For free copies of the working paper ‘Effective gender mainstreaming in water management for sustainable livelihoods: From guidelines to practice’ please click here.

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