Women in Pakistan’s Sindh win historic recognition to manage water

Excluded from water management for years despite being a major part of the agricultural workforce in Sindh, women farmers have been granted a role in water governance after the passage of a new amendment.

Women farmers in Sindh, Pakistan
Women farmers in Sindh, Pakistan. Image: Asian Development Bank, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

This week, a landmark amendment passed by the Sindh province’s legislative assembly for the recognised – for the first time – the role of women farmers in water management.

The Sindh Water Management (Amendment) Bill, 2018 now guarantees women’s representation in around 45,000 water course associations, over 350 farmer organisations, and 14 area water boards in the province. It has been a long battle to create an historic change.

Dhani Bux, a farmer and advocate for efficient water management in his district Badin, was one of many men demanding a share of water in the ‘tail-end areas’ of the Sindh province.

For the last decade, Bux and his fellow farmers have faced a serious scarcity of water that has turned their fertile lands in Badin and Thatta barren and spurred mass migration.

He is the leader of the District Badin Alliance, formed after legislation titled the ‘Sindh Water Management Ordinance’ (SWMO) was passed in 2002 which required that farmers’ organisations be formed at each distributary for the equitable distribution of water.

Unfortunately, there was no specific provision or requirement for women farmers, therefore women were kept out of this important fight. “Unfortunately, I was not part of the farmers’ organisation that decides the distribution of water resources,” Farzana (who uses one name) told The Third Pole. From the village of Qasim Solangi, she rears cattle, takes part in several agricultural activities, brings water home and does housework.

Farzana added, “If women are given a chance in water resource management, we know the lands more than men, and can decide what suitable measures should be taken.”

Women farmers in rural Sindh are a significant part of the agricultural workforce. In 2015, an FAO study in Pakistan reported that women’s role in agriculture increased during the last two decades, as many men migrated from Sindh’s rural areas to urban centres to improve their income possibilities and to avoid exploitation from local landlords.

If women are given a chance in water resource management, we know the lands more than men, and can decide what suitable measures should be taken.

Farzana , woman farmer, Sindh, Pakistan

“Such conditions have given rural women an active role in on-farm and off-farm activities and has also increased their work burden and responsibilities. Women in Sindh are involved in crop production from sowing to harvesting stages, rural women in agriculture, they should be recognised as women farmers rather than sharecroppers or helpers. Women in rural Sindh work on average for 12-14 hours a day,” the report said.

Water scarcity is a huge problem for the farmers in rural Sindh. 77 per cent of these, according to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics, are women.

The water network which consists of three barrages, 14 main canals and about 40,000 field outlets is a key pillar of the rural economy. This massive and cohesive system of canals, outlets and distributaries has been the lifeline of the people here for the last century. However, for the last few years, due to theft and the usage of water by big landowners for their own orchards, the tail-end areas have been largely deprived.

And while men like Bux fight this “political influence and monopoly of big landowners” whom he said “have axed the fair distribution of water”, women are excluded from these platforms even though they are stakeholders very much affected by irrigation policies, laws and distribution of water.

Activist Abida Samoo highlighted the challenge women face. “In rural areas, women do a lot of work in the agricultural field — more than men — from sowing seeds to harvesting,” he said. “Unfortunately, they don’t have a stake in water distribution, even though a woman can efficiently use water once she gets involved.”

Without a clear role in water governance, women and landless peasants are less involved in water conservation.

Fighting for recognition

A legislator in the Sindh province, Rana Ansar, had had enough.

“I also belong to a farming family. Years ago, when we faced a water crisis, I took a stand and raised my voice. But I was told to ‘stay away’ because women don’t have any power in the farmer organisations or in the area water boards,” said Ansar, who proposed an amendment bill in 2018 that covers the role of women in water management.

After a three-year struggle, on January 12, 2021, the amendment taken up by MPA Ansar was passed by the Assembly.

The amendments are:

  • An amendment to Section 30 that includes “Two prominent women of the AWB command area from a strong farming background in irrigated agriculture and water, preferably a member of Board of Management of any FO”
  • An amendment to Section 42 that includes: “Two women [should be] of the FO command area having strong farming background in irrigated agriculture and water, provided that one-woman member shall be landless”
  • In section 56, subsection (1) “In addition to elected members of WCA, the Board of WCA shall consist of two women members preferably sharecroppers of the same water course, where the WCA is formed”
  • An amendment to Section 70 that includes: “Two women members, one shall be prominent woman activist/ Lawyer/journalist and one shall be prominent woman agriculturist.

The amendment has met with support from many quarters. Genevieve Hussain, a Policy Officer at the FAO, said this recognition is hugely important. Amjad Baloch, the regional coordinator of the Strengthening Participatory Organisation, told a local paper that, prior to this, women were not part of any structure.

“Now after the passage of the amendment, women will get representation in around 45,000 water course associations (WCAs), over 350 farmer organisations (FOs), and 14 area water boards (AWBs),” Baloch said. “It helps in mainstreaming women in water resource management and irrigation structures in the province.”

Most importantly women farmers like Khatijan Ghirano, who owns 6 acres of land, were elated. “Women can save more than men as we know very well the agricultural land and the issues related to water, water courses and distributaries,” she said “Once we are part of the farmers’ organisation, we will find a way to solve these issues.”

This story was published with permission from The Third Pole.

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