Introduction

In spite of the legal framework supporting inclusive local water governance, women’s formal participation still remains minimal and at best reduced to tokenism. This article presents empirical evidence collected during fieldwork on the status of women participation in water management in Uganda and their formal and informal roles in promoting cooperation and peacebuilding using a mixed-methods approach. Water scarcity is a leading cause of structural violence whose impact affects men and women disproportionately with women and children bearing the greatest brunt.1Watkins, Kevin. Human Development Report – Beyond Scarcity: Power, Poverty and the Global Water Crisis. London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006.; Gehrig, Jason and Mark M. Rogers. Water and Conflicts: Incorporating Peacebuilding in Water Development.  Baltimore: Catholic Relief Services, 2009.; Naiga, Resty, Marianne Penker, and Karl Hogl. “Women’s Crucial Role in Collective Operation and Maintenance of Drinking Water Infrastructure in Rural Uganda.” Society &Natural Resources 30 no. 4 (2017): 506-520.  https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2016.1274460. The differential impacts of water insecurity were further reaffirmed in 2016 by the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW60) which recognized that women and girls are disproportionately affected by water insecurity and water-related conflicts. Hence CSW urged governments to improve water management with the active participation of women.2United Nations. “Symposium on Women and Water Security for Peacebuilding in the Arab Region.” 9-10 May 2018, Beirut, Lebanon. https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/womenandwatersecurity.

In light of this, Uganda established a legal framework that was cognizant of women’s pivotal role in water management to support inclusive local water governance. The legal framework is based on an operation and maintenance strategy that emphasizes women participation in Water User Committees (WUCs). WUCs are the executive organ at a community level charged with day-to-day operations of water infrastructure including the collection of water user fees. In an effort to promote equitable management, women are supposed to occupy half of WUC positions, including key positions, such as chairperson, vice-chairperson, secretary, or treasurer.3Directorate of Water Development. “Updated National Framework for Operation and Maintenance of Rural Water Supplies.” Kampala: Ministry of Water and Environment, 2011. In addition, since 2005, the percentage of women on WUCs has been one of the ten golden indicators that measures water sector performance in the rural water sub-sector.

Notwithstanding the legal framework, the devolution of water management responsibilities from the state to rural user communities has by and large ignored differences between men and women and its implications on water security, conflict mitigation, and peacebuilding in water development. Moreover, there is persistent limited or lack of literature on sustainable water security and gender disaggregated data on the role of women in water-related conflict mitigation and peacebuilding in the water sector.4Von Lossow, Tobias. “Gender in Inter-State Water Conflicts.” Peace Review 27 no. 2 (2015): 196-201. https://doi.org/10.1080/10402659.2015.1037628. Yet, women’s involvement in WUC and water governance is an important determinant of successful and sustainable cooperation and peacebuilding under community-based water management.5Naiga, Resty. “Local Water Conflicts in Uganda: Options for Peacebuilding Policy and Practice.” APN Policy Briefing Note No. 27. Social Science Research Council, February 2020. https://www.ssrc.org/publications/view/local-water-conflicts-in-uganda-options-for-peacebuilding-policy-and-practice/.;  Naiga, Resty, Marianne Penker, and Karl Hogl. “Women’s Crucial Role in Collective Operation and Maintenance of Drinking Water Infrastructure in Rural Uganda.” Society &Natural Resources 30 no. 4 (2017): 506-520.  https://doi.org/10.1080/08941920.2016.1274460. This article, therefore, provides an overview of the emerging gender, water security, and peacebuilding nexus in the context of devolution in Uganda. It also explores making peacebuilding an integral part of water development and the building inclusive resilient local water institutions.

Women’s participation in Water Management

Despite a well stipulated legal framework to support inclusive water management, inequities in leadership and decision making still persists at all levels of water governance in Uganda. At the national level, top and senior management positions in the Ministry of Water and Environment are held by 50 men and 13 women, reflecting a male dominance of 79.4% compared to 20.6% women. Women constitute 16% of top management and 22% of middle management, with the highest percentages at operational (44%) and support staff levels (39%). The situation is not different at the district level. Women are grossly underrepresented and even absent in District Water Offices (DWOs). For instance, one of the technical officers in Isingiro District water office was a woman. The situation at national and district levels is also replicated at the community level.  In all the 14 WUCs analyzed and 50 WUC members interviewed, women represented less than one third of members and only 6 WUCs had a woman in a leadership position (4 female treasurers, 2 female secretaries). A male participant during a Focus Group Discussion confirmed that, “due to lack of monitoring mechanisms at national and district levels, the law providing for women participation on WUC is  rarely  adhered  to” (Community level  FGD, 15 August 2019). Further still, out of the 8 hand pump mechanics responsible for carrying out water infrastructure repairs, only 1 is a woman. Despite the glaring minimal participation of women in water management, 85.3% of the respondents considered their formal and informal participation crucial due to their contributions towards achieving water security and peacebuilding in water development programs.

Women’s Role Towards Water Security, Cooperation and Peacebuilding

Findings suggest that household respondents’ gender has the highest positive effect on cooperation towards water security. Women water users are four times more willing to contribute user fees towards operation and maintenance of water infrastructure than their counterparts. Relatedly, the presence of women on WUCs increases the willingness of water users to contribute user fees 3 times compared to water users whose WUCs do not include women members.

In addition, women were also found to be making more in-kind contributions such as material and labor towards water infrastructure maintenance. Their actual in-kind contribution was found to be five times higher than those of male interviewees. FGD and workshop participants confirmed “that since in-kind contribution is voluntary work, women are generally more willing to do unpaid work than men” (Isingiro District Local Government Official’s Participatory Workshop, FGD, 17 September 2019; Community level FGD, 12 August 2019).

Women’s role in water security and peacebuilding was also noted in the area of sensitization and awareness creation on water user rules; roles and responsibilities of different actors at community level. This was particularly important because users’ compliance with water rules and awareness of their obligations and responsibilities reduce water related conflicts and increase cooperation regarding water provision. The quantitative results further indicated that 85% of women interviewees were aware of the existing water user rules compared to 49% of men, which also confirms women’s potential informal role in mitigating water-related conflicts.

Women also contribute towards water security and peacebuilding based on their trustworthiness. Compared to a WUC without women members, the likelihood of water users trusting a WUC  with  women  members  is  four  times  higher. Mistrust of WUCs is found to increase water-related conflicts and reduce financial contribution towards water infrastructure maintenance. Workshop participants attributed this role to the fact that women bear the brunt of water insecurity, hence it is in their interest to promote transparency and accountability of the funds to ensure sustainable functionality of the water infrastructure.

Conclusion

The findings show that women do not only contribute financially but also in-kind towards cooperation and peaceful relations between water users. The study confirms low levels of women participation in water management. Factors impeding women’s participation in water governance and peacebuilding efforts include discriminative property rights, especially the inability to own and control land which is a key object of water-related conflicts. Others include the lack of capacity and stereotypes of supposedly “women” duties, such as caring for family members and being responsible for domestic chores.

There is a broad consensus among respondents emphasizing the important of women’s engagement in water management and development at the local and the national level. This is particularly the case because the devolution of water management responsibilities from the state to the communities makes cooperation between water users an imperative as well as an inevitable necessity. Collective action requires trust, cooperation, and peaceful relations as elements of conflict prevention and peacebuilding. The findings confirm that women have a higher stake in ensuring cooperation and peacebuilding hence their voices need to be heard in decision-making as a step towards promoting inclusive local water governance.

Recommendations

Strengthening women participation and their roles in local water governance would be a great start. Women must be included in all stages of water development and post-development as well in conflict resolution mechanisms.

Women should also play a key role in capacity building programs including training, mentorship, sensitization and awareness creation programs to strengthen their leadership, management, technical and functional skills to enable them influence inclusive water-governance related decisions, and peacebuilding processes.

Lastly, a review of existing policies that create unequal property rights is needed, especially policies on land ownership, and replacing them with more equitable measures that ensure gender equality in property and land ownership as a step towards strengthening women’s land tenure security and women empowerment.

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