Development for Whom?

Last March, Dr. K. M. Rabiul Karim of the University of Rajshahi, Bangladesh, and other scholars published an article on Global Water Forum about a water development project that caused an increase of marital violence[1] in rural Bangladesh.

Image courtesy of Living Water International, © 2008, some rights reserved.

Image courtesy of Living Water International, © 2008, some rights reserved.

The project was funded by the World Bank and the European Union and took place in the 90s. Its scope was to improve the technologies for lifting groundwater that would be used for irrigation in order to increase the area’s agricultural productivity. This was successfully achieved, but it caused an increase in the shortage of water for domestic use. This downside had a crucial impact on the Bangladeshi women in the region.

While men are in charge of irrigation, women are responsible for water in the household, which basically consists in going and collecting water from the hand-pump. The development project made it possible to extract more water for irrigation and to irrigate all year long, but it reduced the amount of water that can be pumped for household use. In several cases the pumps dried up and women had to walk further to collect water from another pump. Essentially, while men’s needs were improved by the project, this was done at the expense of the women who saw their task of providing water for the household made more arduous. In addition to the strain, women had less time and resources to fulfil their other domestic tasks. The latter are what frames gender roles in a patriarchal society such as the one found in the rural regions of Bangladesh. Such household obligations are gendered norms: to be carried out by women by virtue of their womanhood. Failure to fulfil them justifies punishment, often physical, usually inflicted by the husbands. In rural Bangladesh marital violence is widespread and for many of the women having difficulties carrying out their tasks due to the new water shortage this failure meant battery.

This casts a light on the unresolved issue of gender, water, and development. It exemplifies how the lack of accurate gendered analysis on the distribution of tasks within a specific community often causes development projects, whether national or international, to unintentionally worsen women’s workloads and conditions.

As water is undeniably one of the most precious resources, societies have often developed social customs that are strongly connected to it. In most developing countries, access to water and water management is determined by social relations shaped, in turn, by gender relations. In all societies there are gender-based divisions of work and generally men are the ones who own and control the various modes to access water (at least for those including ownership of land). Every community presents a different understanding of gender identity and inequality can have different bases (class, age, religion etc.) but in most cases women are among the groups that have less control of water sources, and consequently are more affected by water scarcity.

Any project aiming at fostering development through the improvement of water conditions has an impact on social dynamics and gender relations. Even the introduction of new technologies, generally considered as gender-neutral, can affect the status of these relations by altering responsibilities relating to water. For example, new technologies can substitute women in carrying out water related tasks, but carrying out those tasks conferred women a certain status, a ‘value’, of which they would be deprived.

The case of the water project in rural Bangladesh shows the need for a gender analysis of how technologies are introduced.

Admittedly, development discourse has recognized that women are one of the groups that most suffer from water shortage. In the past decades there has been a trend in development projects to include women’s participation in the formulation and realization of projects in several developing countries. Women’s knowledge, deriving to their active roles in water management, has come to be seen as precious for improving water provisions and usage.

Unfortunately this has often happened together with gender mainstreaming, the introduction of frameworks to quickly identify the issue, glossing over the complexity of each community. Development projects frequently aim at obtaining results in a short period of time and need results that can be quantified in order to prove their success. Increasing the number of women participating in development projects is relatively quick to achieve and it looks good on records but it is not necessarily sufficient to improve equality and quality of life.

In the past decade analysis of water projects realized in India showed how these projects, although partially aiming at improving women’s conditions, did not do so efficiently due to an oversimplification or misunderstanding of gender roles[2]. By just focusing on specific issues, such as improving drinking water, these programs overlooked the complexity of the role water played in society. While working to involve women at community level, power relations were not taken into account and the hegemony of gender roles was not challenged. As a result women’s condition did not change much.

Obviously changing society dynamics is not easy and it is not something that will be achieved in the short run. Improvements of women’s status and women empowerment can only be achieved through a long-term process, a revolution that will happen slowly.

In the meantime, though, it is important that water development projects adopt an accurate, and at the same time realistic, analysis of the specific dynamics and gender roles of each community, and of the social issues that might arise from their realization. Only in this way they will be able to improve women’s quality of life, or else avoid making it worse.


[2] Joshi Deepa “Misunderstanding Gender in Water: Addressing or Reproducing Exclusion” in Coles Anna and Wallace Tina, “Gender, Water and Development” (New York, Oxford: Berg, 2005)