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In South Asia, water management has traditionally been dominated by men. In particular, transboundary water governance decisions typically are taken in elite international fora, with the strategic interests of respective countries being the focal point of concern. These systems are disconnected from realities on ground since the people that depend directly on rivers in South Asia are predominantly from poor households, and men and women from these households depend on the river in different ways. Moreover, interaction with the river is also shaped by caste, ethnicity, and local contexts – and women often bear a disproportionate burden when it comes to the supply of water to households.

Unfortunately, there is little interaction between those who govern water and those who are governed, particularly in the context of transboundary water management. This means policymakers dealing with transboundary water management often ignore basic livelihood issues. It is nevertheless important to recognise that if the perspectives of the ‘governed’ are not incorporated in the governance of these rivers, it is impossible to ensure an environmentally just and sustainable outcome. The river impacts lives of people who are commonly ‘voiceless’ or do not have the opportunity to articulate their perspectives in relevant forums, where women, in particular, are conspicuous in their absence.

Supported by The Asia Foundation, the South Asia Consortium for Interdisciplinary Water Resources Studies (SaciWATERs) – a policy research institute based in Hyderabad, India – recently completed a study. The aim of the research was to learn from those marginalised classes and social groups, including women, paying particular attention to people living close to the Brahmaputra. The study also attempted to build an understanding of the gender relationship in the various places through which the river flows.

This article draws from the larger study and highlights policy recommendations for transboundary water governance of the Brahmaputra River. The study covered three countries, Bhutan, India (states of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam) and Bangladesh.

Complex picture of gender roles

An analysis of gender indicators available in the Population Census, India, appears to suggest that gender relations are more adverse in the lower reaches of the river than its upstream areas primarily in land ownership and employment. It has been argued in existing research that this difference stems from the different quality of land in the upstream and downstream areas, both in terms of fertility of land and its accessibility, which in turn shapes land price and private property right regimes around it.

In the river valleys and downstream reaches, better land quality historically led to the male domination of economic activities around land, while reducing the demand for female labour. This led to the forming of strong patriarchies, alienating women from control of such lands. On the other hand, in the hills or the upstream reaches, where land is less fertile and accessible and there are common property regimes, men have tended to migrate elsewhere for work, and there is a high demand for female labour. This makes women more visible in public work spaces, explaining higher work participation and share of women cultivators in such regions.

A micro-view based on in-depth interviews in the three countries reveals a more nuanced picture. It shows there is less of a gender divide in terms of work and mobility in the upstream areas like Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh, and a sharper gender divide in Assam and Bangladesh. However, it also highlights complex gender relations along the river that cannot be understood as soft or hard patriarchies.

Bhutan is characterised with a favourable and just property inheritance for women, although the decision-making in public spaces weigh heavily in favour of men. In Arunachal Pradesh, where there are plural tribal norms and a greater degree of private ownership of natural resources, women work only when they are required to. Apart from this, the social order does not challenge the traditional norms, whether it be in terms of property ownership, decision making in the private or the public sphere, or state policies on gender issues.

In Assam there is a more complex picture of gender relations. In upper Assam women can exercise limited choices, even in the case of paid work, with little acceptance of traditional restrictions that are imposed on women. Majuli, the largest island in the Brahmaputra in middle Assam, is characterised by similar trends, though women and men both recognise the uneven burden of work on women, who are largely responsible for collecting water and fuel for their household.  Lower Assam reveals a socially alienated environment for women, which is marked by poverty, and can be understood in relation to issues of religion and caste.

These plural patriarchies offer women a range of opportunities to take part in a transboundary dialogue. In Bhutan, setting the difficulties of working with a centralized government structure aside, involving women in a dialogue platform is likely to yield far better results than having only men. In Arunachal Pradesh and Majuli, a nested structure of women’s involvement may have to be explored, where empowerment within communities is a necessary first step without which their participation in decisionmaking may not do much good. Given women’s deep understanding about the river and other natural resources in these two places, their inputs are likely to be crucial. However, this may not be effective in a hierarchical neat structure where women have to negotiate a gendered power structure. Thus it is desirable that opinions from all women’s groups feed into the existing institutional framework. In cases of Upper Assam, Lower Assam and Bangladesh, the government and NGOs may have to play an instrumental role in harnessing women’s capacities in public engagement by enhancing their agency in voicing their opinions.

Only the poorest stay by the river

One of the important insights from the study is that it is only the poorest of the poor who stay back by the river to face the increasing uncertainties that come with it. People who had the opportunity and resources have moved away from the river over time. Thus, in a dialogue regarding a transboundary river, it is crucial to have the poor men’s perspective as well as the women’s, whose lives are as dependent on the river. The study points towards possibilities of building solidarities across borders around common socio-economic issues in transboundary water management, due to similarities in opportunities or distress in Bhutan and Arunachal Pradesh on the one hand, and Assam and Bangladesh, on the other. One such example would be to build an alternative strategy for flood management particularly vis-à-vis the structural measures to prevent disasters, such as building embankments, which have been accepted as the only way to address this, and has rendered marginalised communities even more insecure.

Sucharita Sen is the executive director of SaciWATERs, based in Hyderabad, India

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