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08 April 2024

Economic and rural development through gender-responsive water-management policies

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

Photo: E.L.S.K.E Photography/IWMI, Flickr

Gender inequality in South Africa inhibits development and the economic success of many households. For example, an article in the 2023 September issue of the HSRC Review reported land ownership discrepancies between men and women. Such discrepancies limit the ability of women to contribute to food security, nutrition and sustainable livelihoods within their communities and in South Africa as a whole.

In 2000, the South African government outlined a National Gender Policy Framework, which established the country’s vision and planned interventions to promote women’s empowerment and gender equality. However, the implementation of this framework has been charged with many obstacles, and its pathways and goals are no longer aligned with current developments and challenges in South Africa. As such, the Department of Women, Youth and Persons with Disabilities (DWYPD) has commissioned the HSRC to review and update the framework by researching how gender inequalities currently impact aspects of South African society.

Recently, HSRC researchers Drs Sikhulumile Sinyolo and Catherine Ndinda worked with Rhodes University lecturer Dr Sandie Phakathi to publish a policy brief regarding gendered access to water. This brief brings to light a significant gender discrepancy in control and access to water resources in South Africa.

The current distribution of water licencing and control in South Africa is 10.5% for women and 89.5% for men, particularly prevalent in rural communities around the country. These figures failed to meet targets of the Water Allocation Reform Strategy, which were 30% in 2014 and 40% in 2019. “It is imperative that researchers inform government stakeholders about the research findings on water inequality in South Africa, given the stark numbers that underscore the severity of the issue,” says Sinyolo.

Historic gender and racial policy injustice have meant that a deficit in female land ownership has resulted in few women having direct access to, or control over, water sources. In an interview with HSRC Review, Phakathi points to the apartheid regime having contributed to profound disparities in land and water access. For example, in the agricultural sector, black women face notable inequalities in acquiring agricultural water licences, underscoring the broader racial and gender disparities.

Several cultural and social mechanisms also contribute to water access deficits. For example, established gender roles mean that women are overwhelmingly responsible for providing water for domestic use, such as for cooking, cleaning and washing. “Women and girls bear the main responsibility of water collection, thus negatively impacting their leisure time, educational performance and productivity,” Phakathi told the HSRC Review. Inadequate water access also contributes to girls missing school due to long walks for water collection, during which time they also become vulnerable to sexual harassment, she added.

Community governance structures, such as water users’ associations, are dominated by men who give themselves an upper hand in terms of access and control. In water-scarce areas, access to irrigation water is based on a first-come, first-served basis, so domestic burdens can often keep women from attaining what they need. Heavy-duty maintenance on canals and pipes also provides men with power over water access and usage, as they have the time and strength to keep the infrastructure running, giving them leverage to access these reserves.

Yet access to water remains key for economic development and success. It allows women to engage in small-scale farming or agriculture, which enables them to contribute to household income, food security and the economy. It also means that domestic burdens are lightened, allowing women more time to participate in other educational and economic activities.

Photo: Freepik

Water access is also vital for maintaining health and hygiene. With limited access to water, women and their dependants are at increased risk of disease or illness. Easy access to water can also increase a woman’s self-esteem, allowing them to maintain expected social conformities concerning hygiene and beauty.

According to the policy brief, to effectively deal with inequalities in water access, the land-water and gender relationship should be dealt with simultaneously because, if addressed separately, it will continue to result in reforms that will not benefit women in the water sector. Current water management policies are a primary driver of gendered water access as gender-blind policies do not consider gender-specific needs and roles, and inadvertently perpetuate gender inequalities in water access.

Policies that are sensitive to gender issues can address the specific needs and roles of women in water management. For example, the government should enforce policies that put women in decision-making positions in water governance to ensure that they are involved in the planning and implementation process. Land policy that encourages land ownership by women is also essential to combating water-access inequality. “The policy brief proposes a Land and Water Nexus Policy to ensure the intersectionality of land and water rights, emphasising that women should benefit from land reform programmes, as land ownership is a prerequisite for water rights,” says Phakathi.

Phakathi also insists that “infrastructure development policies should target areas with high gender disparities, aiming to alleviate the physical burden of water collection for women and girls”. This means that the government should focus on placing water points closer to households, so that women don’t spend hours of their day trekking to access water.

The government and other stakeholders need to prioritise community-based initiatives, capacity-building programmes and awareness campaigns, and emphasise collecting disaggregated data on water usage and access. These projects should aim at enhancing women’s knowledge, participation and decision-making in water-related activities to help close gender inequality and water-access gaps.

According to Phakathi, while the South African government has taken steps to address historical injustices and gendered disparities in water access, challenges persist. “Comprehensive reforms in land-water governance, effective implementation of existing laws and targeted strategies to empower women – including through education – are crucial for rectifying the gendered nature of water access in post-apartheid South Africa.”

Research contacts:

Dr Sandie Phakathi, a lecturer at Rhodes University

Dr Sikhulumile Sinyolo, a senior research specialist, and Dr Catherine Ndinda, a research director, in the HSRC’s Public Health, Societies and Belonging research division

Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC)

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