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Water management in Java adds to burden on women and reduces their incomes

Written by John Burgess, Professor of Human Resource Management, RMIT University


Women make up half the Indonesian population but their roles and contribution to the economy are still limited.

The 2020 Global Gender Gap Index shows Indonesian women earn only half of men’s estimated income.

Our latest research reveals how gender inequality in water management in rural Java has forced women to reduce their hours of paid work. They have to spend more time to secure water supply for their family, hurting their income-earning capacity.

The research

We studied women’s role in water management in Kulon Progo, Yogyakarta, in 2018 by interviewing villagers and government officers.

Our research finds that traditional values drive access to clean drinking water and its distribution in rural Indonesia. These practices fail to recognise women’s role in the household and village economy.

As a result, they don’t have a voice in governing the village and managing the water.

The problems are more evident during the dry season, when limited access to water reduces women’s work hours as they spend more time gathering water.

One of the interviewees could usually produce 3 to 4 kilograms of palm sugar every day in the rainy season. During the dry season, she could produce only 1.5kg per day.

The decreases occurred because the interviewees spent more hours collecting water than working. It is estimated they lost at least 50% of their monthly income at this time.

file 20200716 17 1kiao06.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A woman rides a bike in Kulon Progo, Yogyakarta.
johanwieland/flickr, CC BY

Why this happens

Indonesia’s influential patriarchal culture has excluded women from political decision-making processes, including the governance of water management.

This culture contributes to limiting women’s roles to water gatherers, as their roles are associated with domestic duties.

The government has made some attempts at gender mainstreaming and to involve women more in decision-making processes at all levels of government. Despite this, it was still difficult for women to be actively involved in the decision-making processes of water management.

When women raise issues regarding the quality and quantity of water management at the family and community levels, their views and experiences are often ignored.

Men dominate decision-making on water management at almost all levels. These include decisions on access to water and the quantity and quality of water.

The government needs to be more active

Based on our research, we found that national gender mainstreaming programs have not filtered into rural regions.

Instead, local NGO programs such as IDEA, an Indonesian-based organisation that promotes public policies to support economic, social and cultural rights, appear to have a more significant effect in closing the gender governance gap. IDEA provides empowerment training and network building for village women.

Furthermore, local government officials generally interpret gender mainstreaming as the availability of various programs for women. They don’t see women as active users of water, even though they are capable of using their experiences to contribute to decision-making on water management.

The Convention on the Elimination of all Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) confirms it is the state’s responsibility to ensure no public authority discriminates against women. Hence the government should be more active in ensuring women are included in water decision-making.

The government can encourage women’s participation by inviting them to meetings that discuss issues of water usage. The issues include the time required to collect water from the source and responsibilities (men, women, children) for water collection. Through such meetings, key decision-makers can consult with women to capture their water use and water management experiences.

Gender mainstreaming requires a more significant effort and more cooperation between government and NGOs to offer training and workshops.

Programs to train women in leadership and empowerment skills will encourage them to be involved in public meetings. These training programs and skills development are fundamental to increase women’s confidence to be actively involved in public decision-making processes.

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