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An age old question that plagues our society is: where are the women? In my recent field visit to Sinduli, to survey upstream and downstream water use and management linkages for ICIMOD’s Koshi Basin Programme, participation disparity between men and women was clearly evident.
In the five small group discussions held in four VDCs, a total of six women were present, compared with thirty-three men. In two of the discussions, there were no women at all. In others where there were a few, most of them were left out of the conversation. Did they not know what crops they planted each season, or how many springs were in their village as men? Did they not know how water was used from the rivers, or what benefit they would have from proper water management as men knew?
In Bhaseshwor, a downstream VDC that had no women participating in our discussions, I saw some women who were sitting in the background, occasionally looking at our group. As I spoke to them, I realized that they had a lot of knowledge and insights on water shortage and its effects. They felt that the spring water was going to waste, and needed to be stored for later use. All of them were aware of the various seasonal crops and irrigation methods the community uses. They said they saw us walking to their village and discussed amongst themselves as to why we had come.
When I asked why they had not approached us, even when they were curious, they gave various reasons, but one stark answer was repeated: they were concerned what other people might say if they spoke with us. What if someone accused them of being too forward or inappropriate?
I probed deeper. When I asked them to elaborate on this, one of them added, “If we were encouraged to be vocal from a young age, it is more likely we would be in the discussions.” From this conversation, I saw how important early interventions and youth groups can be in shaping our society, and how these interventions get to the root cause of absent women.
Not only this, they also added that they would be more likely to join in on the conversation if there were more women on the research team. “If there were more women, we would have obviously come to greet you on the road, as it might be about women’s issue,” one woman told me. This then leads us to another question: would more women researchers yield more active participation from women? Later, I asked this question to some of my male colleagues. They replied that in their experience, this was indeed the case.
A woman in Jalkanya grinding Millet for personal use
In Ratanchura, an upstream VDC, I spoke with two young, educated, unmarried women who were giving their opinions regarding shortage of water. Surprisingly, they left in the middle of the conversation. Later, I found them sitting on the end of a hill. When asked why they left, they said they only joined because one of the male teachers asked them to. During the conversation, however, they felt they did not belong—they were not in the local water or irrigation group.
They expressed their desire to be involved in the water group, which they could not join because they had been told that young women were expected to get married and go away, and replacing them with another new member would be difficult. Both women aspired to study further, but due to the water shortage, most of their morning was now devoted to collecting water. Because of this, they had difficulty attending their classes.
In Bhimeshowre, a conversation about the lack of women’s presence with one of the male participants revealed that the meeting was ad-hoc, and that it had not been mentioned that women had to attend. “If it was planned well, then more women could have been informed that they need to attend,” he said. The fact that women’s participation had to be specifically mentioned for them to be included shows there is an underlining problem to address.
It is important to look at the core of our society’s social structure, and bring changes from within if we hope to change things in the future. Increasing the number of women participants and calculating how many gave their opinion will only solve the lack of women’s participation on a superficial level. Importantly, researchers have also noted that women’s participation itself does not automatically lead to women who influence policies and who have the power to make decisions. We need to create more platforms where girls and boys are encouraged to engage in conversations and resolve problems together. They must learn to both become leaders as well as learn to work under each other’s leadership.
If we really want to address this disparity and have “Planet 50-50 by 2030”, we must take into account the root of the problem. Structuring the mind-sets of youth is a good start towards equality.
Tinusha Ghimire currently works at ICIMOD as Gender Associate.
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