Women constitute 49% of Pakistan’s population but constitute only 24% of its labour force, as per the Global Gender Gap 2018 — which also ranks Pakistani women second to last after Yemen.
Rural women — a substantial part of whom hail from religious minorities — are an essential part of Sindh’s agrarian economy as they take an active part in livestock management as well as cultivation of crops, in addition to their household responsibilities. They toil away in the fields from dawn to dusk picking crops and getting exposed to hazardous wastes from pesticides.
Notwithstanding their invaluable contribution to the rural economy, their development and social empowerment are hampered by various taboos stemming from a strong patriarchal social structure. In terms of money and unending labour, their contribution in each rural household is immense. Yet they remain socially excluded.
The Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority (SIDA) manages the province’s irrigation system by operating four canals — one each at Guddu and Sukkur barrages and two at Kotri barrage. It oversees farmers’ organisations (FO), watercourse associations (WCA) and area water boards (AWB) — tiers which form the authority’s basic structures for management of irrigation and recovery of revenue and water charges from farmers. The collected funds are supposed to be spent on the system’s uplift and development as Sindh features one of the largest canal irrigation system — a leftover of the colonial era.
“There is no specific provision for promoting women’s participation in FOs and AWBs, even though local farmers including women face multiple issues relating to water resources,” explained Pirbhu Satyani, the region heal of Strengthening Participatory Organisation (SPO), an NGO.
Satyani shared that SPO has drafted amendments to the Sindh Water Management Ordinance (SWMO) 2002 calling for inclusion of women in SIDA’s various bodies. However, the draft amendments have been gathering dust in the Sindh Assembly. Satyani reasserted that the amendments are aimed at ensuring a clearly defined participation of women in the three tiers of SIDA so women’s water rights are ensured.
He added that the existing law overlooks women and sharecroppers, and sharecroppers by virtue of landlessness have also been excluded. He claimed this would make it easier for women and landless peasants to play an effective role in the better management and conservation of water.
“SWMO 2002 basically talks about landholders as far as water rights are concerned. And a landholder can be both man and woman. If it is a woman, she can’t be denied any role under SWMO 2002,” said Research and Development Foundation (RDF) chief Ashfaq Soomro. RDF, which works in the agriculture sector and highlights women’s issues, has been actively engaged in drafting Sindh’s water policy as well.
But, Soomro continued, “If we are talking about ensuring participation of women and especially landless peasantry, then we will have to define it quantitatively and in unambiguous terms.”
A considerable portion of women in the agriculture sector is landless, who keep shifting from one place to the next in search of livelihood. Ashfaq is concerned about the protection of rights of this group.
“A mere symbolic participation of women in SIDA will not work. It has to be well-defined and result-oriented so they can create an impact,” emphasised Soomro.
A SIDA official, while commenting on the issue, claimed, “Some women were elected in FOs but it didn’t create any major impact.” He added, however, that there should be a permanent representation of women in the authority’s bodies. According to him, SIDA has supported SPO’s draft amendments to the SWMO so women’s participation is legally ensured in the overall structure of Sindh’s water regulator.