"Water for society – including all", a 2019 World Water Week theme, reminds me how water plays a fundamental role within society.


- Written by Pan Ei Ei Phyo

Access to clean water and sanitation is a basic human right, it is essential to ensure that people have safe, secure affordable water to obtain a decent life for all. Water governance - transparent, clearly informed and inclusive decision-making - should bring fair and equitable development planning for the whole of society regardless of social status, location, gender, sexual orientation, disability or ethnicity. Having those aims in mind, I would like to address the essential role that gender plays in Myanmar society in accordance to highlight World Water Day 2019 theme, "Leaving no one behind" - which aims to focus on marginalized groups. The 'Impact Evaluation in practice' handbook, published by the World Bank Group and the Inter-American Development Bank, evaluated 122 projects, which evidently found that water projects that included women were six to seven times more effective than those that did not. In addition, recognising Myanmar rural society, it is essential to "leaving no country behind" to enable redistribution of the global wealth to be achieving Sustainable Development Goal, SDG 1 – No Poverty.

The theme 'inclusiveness of society in the water sector' revived my childhood memory of growing up in my beloved village, located on a small island at the southern part of Myanmar- carrying the glazed earthenware pot which was filled with the drinking water for my household, over my head from the village monastery's well. It is assumed as a cleaner water source as it was located on higher land than central village houses. I remember going to the communal drinking wells with my grandmother, catching up with the fellow women while waiting for the turns to manually pump the water during the summer months of March, April and May - the period most regions of Myanmar faced the lack of water. In the drier months, we would have to go to the nearby villages with the cow carts, to carry the water. However, those have changed when my neighbours and my parents, former teachers, decided to have a deep-well near the house for a small neighbourhood. Having easier access to water allowed me to have extra time for studying. Besides, the neighbourhoods could collect small fees for maintaining the well's operation, and even building an additional well for a village school within a few years. From spending two times daily (one hour every time) carrying water to readily available water next door has proved the immerse advantage.

Personally, I think gender equity refers to giving equal rights, opportunities and responsibilities to anyone while treating everyone the same regardless of the gender. Gender spectrum, either as women or men, in my opinion, needs constant evolving. Despite the social norms, I believe having equal rights should not be restrained by gender diversity. In water communities, women are underrepresented in decision making for practical water use and at a higher level also women are less represented at the policy level. Although women and girls carry the majority of the care and domestic burden, they are likely to be less employed in the formal sector (even if they are employed, they earn lower wages), yet, they are less likely to influence in policy and governance worldwide. The Myanmar law has constituted that women and men have equal rights, however, in reality, there is significant discrimination against women with the social norms and traditions. This discrimination could be illustrated by a Myanmar proverb – 'the sound of a female cockerel can't bring the sunrise' which implies the limited significance attached to a woman's contribution to society. This is basically gender discrimination in every sector, and it is now a consensus that whether or not a hen or rooster calls, the sun would still rise.

Besides, the Myanmar government has released a rural WASH strategy notes, 2016-2030, stated that there is a limited understanding of women's roles in the water and sanitation sector. It also emphasized the empowerment of women as they are the main water users responsible for domestic water and for household sanitation, they ought to take part in decision making within the community. As mentioned, the social norms, conventions and hierarchies determined the position of man and woman in the family, community or even society at large. Therefore, I would like to highlight in accordance to my experiences, as of a daughter of a rural community and a young water female professional.

Women in water – at Personal or Household Level

An overwhelming 85% of the Myanmar population – over 53 million people – still live in the rural parts of Myanmar. In rural Myanmar, women play a critical role within a household. They take care of household members – husband, children, elderly generation, disabled person, and even domestic animals. Allowing women, the power to solve day-to-day water challenges and letting them participate in all water decisions (including water governance, sanitation and hygiene), could raise many benefits starting from managing water for sanitation, improving better health prevention and health care system. For an inclusive society, this would bring different perspectives on finding replicable mechanisms - escalating the horizon of rural Myanmar actively engaging in water practice efficiently. I believe starting small to a bigger ambition could bring uttermost success in the long run. Besides, it is also reported that

Women's involvement in water management enables them to develop confidence, self-resilience, & leadership skills & to gain more power and respect in the community

 
(UN DESA, 2015).

Traditionally, water collection has been a task for women and children, particularly when water sources are far from the villages. According to GWANET (Gender and Water in Central Asia), women can spend up to 5 hours collecting fuel for energy and water, and up to 4 hours preparing food in Asia. It is not an exaggeration that the accessibility of water helped me gain an education.

Had we advocated enough to achieve a local water supply system in a rural area - that brings water to your tap – it would have promoted water accessibility to everyone and women, who normally manage water for daily use, could effectively allocate its daily consumption. The reduction of the water collection time, rather gaining systematically designed basic infrastructure – storage and supply would bring the household to advance in achieving clean water and sanitation, building towards the achievement of the UN Sustainable Development Goal (SDGs), particularly SDG1, SDG5, and SDG6.

Women in Water – at Community Level

The report by the United Nations Development of Economic & social affairs (2015), addressed that by improving the participation of women in water management, water programs and policies could be more efficient and effective. As a result of social norms, the decision makers in water policy and management worldwide have been male-dominated with women having limited influence. One study stands out that closing the gender gap (through equal access to assets such as land and water, inputs such as seeds and fertilizer, and training) would increase yields on women-run farms by 20-30% which could reduce the number of hungry people – poverty in the world by 12-17%. (FAO, 2011; World Bank 2017a). Hence, to achieve SDG1 – no poverty in Myanmar, women need the step forwards in taking roles in local associations – such as water user association and having assets towards irrigation.

Working at the International Water Management Institute, I was involved in field trips for 'irrigation rehabilitation scheme' project during 2017. I visited the Sagaing region, a dry-zone area in Central Myanmar. Here, we interviewed different water user associations (WUA) with already identified survey questions to understand the needs of the community and to address the challenges of the current irrigation schemes. To ensure the service provision, the WUA is expected to collect water user fees & oversee the operation and maintenance of the water distribution system. Shockingly, fewer women were involved in community meetings. There were also less elective towards the committee. I believe that even though the women's participation in water user committees is limited, women's involvement in the sector has contributed to managing water systems more effective. Despite fewer women than men are involved in the decision-making, women involved in water management gain power and respect in the community.

Had they been involved in the management committee, they would perform more effective water management including regular meetings, tariff collection and improved the functioning of water systems. Women in rural Myanmar traditionally manage the finance of each household and tends to know the consumption of water usage. Knowing the demands of each household and the surrounding environment would bring important perspectives to the community meeting. Accordingly, women in Myanmar play a vital role in the agriculture sector - relating to crop cultivation from planting and weeding, to harvesting and marketing. As a caretaker of each household - for husband, children, and elder generation - the best way to bring forward an inclusive society is with the strong involvement of women in the decision-making process.

Finally, I would like to address, that water is a precious resource to the day-to-day life in Myanmar and that carefully considered strategies and communities' involvement would require advancing the sustainable water resources management while leaving no one behind in the water sector. Therefore, it is essential to build capacity at the community level and consult in gender equality – to support and welcome female water leaders. Subsequently, strengthening local communities, irrigation groups, water user association and women groups, who would support the community development plan, could bring forward gender equality and the realization of SDG5. The big role women play in society, their knowledge and experiences require to be acknowledged. After all, inclusive and well-thought-through decisions could bring all rounded development to the rural community. As an enthusiast in the environment and water resources management and a young water professional, I believe that the involvement of women in the water sector both as consumers and as decision-makers could improve water management strategies, for effective and efficient water usage in the rural regions.


Pan Ei Ei Phyo is currently working as a Knowledge Building intern at International Hydropower Association ( IHA ) at Sutton London, UK.  She involved in variety of topics related to Hydropower and its associated sectors including river basin management, sediment transport, clean energy and climate resilience and adaptation.