COLOMBO, Sri Lanka (AlertNet) – In 2006, when the Asian Development Bank (ADB) decided to launch a multi-million dollar rural water project in eastern and north central regions of Sri Lanka, there was one overriding requirement – women would be placed in key positions.
As a result, experts say, the $263 million program, aimed at providing drinking water to over 900,000 people by 2011, has been a particular success.
In the village of Talpothta, in the rural north-central Polonnaruwa District, the village women’s association is now central to the proper functioning of the new water supply plant provided under the ADB programme. Its members visit the over 200 users, read meters and more importantly advise beneficiaries on water usage when drought sets in.
“We know how much is needed. Women do most of the household work like cooking (and) washing clothes. We ask our members to limit use when we have problems,” said Sheila Herath, an association member.
Kusum Athukorala, one of the country’s leading experts on water management, agrees that women are key to adapting effective measures to deal with water challenges and changing climate patterns.
“Women are the foot soldiers of climate change adaptation,” said Athukorala who heads the Network of Women Water Professionals, Sri Lanka (NetWwater) and the Women for Water Partnership.
NetWwater’s efforts to create awareness among rural women on climate change, adaptation and water management have won support from Brandix, one of the island’s largest garment. That allows Athukorala to now travel the country, educating women on water management.
“One sixth of our water supply is from rural programmes managed by community-based organizations. If we don’t recognize the impact of over half of the population, these programmes will never succeed,” she said.
INDONESIA, CHINA AND FORESTS
In other Asian countries women also are playing crucial roles at the grassroots level in preserving the environment and making sure human-inflicted damage remains controllable. Avi Mahaningtyas, an Indonesian expert on forest management and Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD) told AlertNet that it was rural women who knew intimately the forest’s value to their lives.
“They know it by heart and by birth,” said Mahaningtyas, who heads the Environmental and Economic Governance Cluster of the Kemitraan-Partnership for Governance Reform in Indonesia, a national body that works on good governance.
The same sentiment is true in rural China, says Xiaobei Wang, a China gender specialist with Landesa Rural Development Institute, an international organisation that works on poverty and land rights. Wang told AlertNet that as men increasingly migrated to cities looking for jobs, it was women, left behind in the villages, who took care of the land and the forests.
"In China most of men from areas near forests have left as migrant workers, making women the major labour force. About 60 percent of those working in forests and farm land are women. If their rights are not protected and enforced, there will be lots of issues in reducing poverty in forest areas and ensuring the sustainable management of forests,” she said.
Indonesia’s Mahaningtyas said that if a forest is to be preserved, like any other natural resource, it needs to carry a value. “A forest with a value will not easily be cut down. And it is the people who work within it who will know intimately that value.”
However, despite their importance, women are still being largely left out of the decision making, according to a new report by the Rights and Resources Initiative (RRI). The report - The Challenges of Securing Women’s Tenure and Leadership for Forest Management: The Asian Experience - found that gender discrimination is still rampant.
Arvind Khare, RRI’s senior director of country and regional programmes, said that women’s roles should not only be recognized but should also be enforced. He took the case of land rights in rural China, where women often find themselves losing land, due to cultural and social norms, despite laws that are gender neutral on paper.
“How can we look at climate adaptation and food security when those who do most of the work at ground level have no say?” he asked.
Indonesia’s Mahaningtyas feels that the continuing lack of recognition of the crucial role women play could be due to lack of scientific studies. “Gender documentation is quite low and we are still to quantify the impact of the role.”
Sri Lanka’s grassroots worker Athukorala sees a much more practical reason: lack of women in decision making positions.
“They are the foot soldiers, but how many female generals do we have in our countries fighting climate change?” she asked.
Amantha Perera is a freelance writer based in Sri Lanka. He can be followed via Twitter on @AmanthaP