Empowered Women Empower Women (II)

By: Allison Mihalich

[As a graduate student in Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources (XMNR) degree program, Allison Mihalich participated in an International Residency trip to India. In Part I of this four-part series, Mihalich discusses the importance of empowering women in the Thar Desert region of Rajasthan, India.]

Between 1999 and 2009, the Barmer district of the Marwar region of Rajasthan, India saw seven years of rainfall deficits. These severe droughts resulted in foreign donors as well as the Government of India providingg emergency provisions. The Maharaja saw the many problems facing the settlements in the region during this time, which were further complicated by the dense population stress placed on the fragile desert ecosystem.

Around the same time, the State took responsibility of water management from individuals and communities and also brought in modern technologies to promote large exploitation of natural resources such as dams and deep tube wells replaced traditional simple rainwater harvesting methods. The Maharaja knew a water movement needed to take place to preserve water and promote education around water management, so they decided to create the Jal Bhagirathi Foundation (JBF).

The JBF would become an exemplary organization committed to solving the water crisis while empowering women in the Marwar region of India and was formed as a public trust on January 15, 2002 following a public meeting with all stakeholders. Upon creation, the JBF conducted extensive public consultations and developed an implementation framework.

JBF’s Mission and Vision

The JBF has a vision of water security that is sustained by responsive governance and inclusivity and leads to sustainable development. The implementation framework is based on village-level volunteers as well as members working in professional and technical capacities and encourages women to participate in spite of the region’s feudal social history.

The organization’s mission is to “provide an enabling environment in which the desert communities of the Marwar region can access adequate drinking water for humans and animals within the constraints of environmental equilibrium by leveraging traditional knowledge and appropriate technology; facilitating village institutions of collective wisdom and building local capacities for community mobilization in an atmosphere of transparency, participation and accountability, through a process of networking and advocacy” (Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, 2016).

How JBF Works

One element of the JBF’s mandate is “to facilitate women’s access to and control over natural resources as primary stakeholders and enhance their inclusion in the development processes by ensuring access to economic resources and alternative livelihood options” (JBF Mission Document, 2016).

The JBF works on many projects aimed at empowering women, including:

  • Vulnerability reduction through community empowerment and control of water: the JBF, with support by UNDP and the Italian Development Cooperation, was able to mobilize communities in the Jodhpur, Pali, and Barmer districts from 2005 to 2009 and created an institutional framework of Water User Associations.
  • Community video unit for development and social change: videos developed to project the message that local people need to take the lead in their own development and culminate into a point of action. This project also took place in the Jodhpur, Pali and Barmer districts of Western Rajasthan.

The JBF also approaches women’s empowerment through the following indirect interventions:

  • Women’s empowerment and participation in water management: the JBF observed improved gender equality as an important objective that was achieved through water management as well as self-help groups focused on starting bank accounts and building credit.
  • Micro – enterprise activities of Jal Mandals: the JBF supported Jal Mandals to encourage the future potential service sector associated with drinking water. The JBF has aided Jal Mandals in their endeavors such as desalination plant projects and supports the Jal Mandals so they can take loans for other non-water sector activities such as animal husbandry and retail.

The JBF recognized the difficulty in placing women into the field to carry out work, but have encouraged women to be tough and to work in whatever ways they can to spread knowledge in the field. The JBF also produces educational materials all stakeholders, regardless of gender, and promotes equality through supporting female representation and leadership in the villages. In the Marwar Region, the JBF has worked for empowering women to free themselves of hauling water, day in day out.

Development of JBF’s Gender Equity Approach

The JBF decided to take a participatory approach in water management. They facilitated equal participation of men and women in the decision-making process, thereby enabling inclusive governance. Still, at least one woman is encouraged to occupy a leading position in a Jal Sabha, thus ensuring that the voice of women is heard in community decision-making.

Greater awareness among women about safe drinking water practices, health, and hygiene has been generated through various training programs, which have in turn contributed to overall better health. The JBF ensures that women are engaged in a number of participatory exercises to make sure that they are included in the mainstream of the project. Women are also encouraged to form self-help groups. These groups consist of 10 to 15 women who come together, are involved in monthly savings, and undertake small income generation activities. The organization also assists these groups in establishing links with banks and their services.

The JBF’s second commitment outlines their goal to increase women empowerment: “By 2015, participation and representation of women and disadvantaged groups increased in water management and local institutions in 400 villages” (Jal Bhagirathi Foundation, 2016). The JBF describes many elements of their approach to tackle gender equality in their milestone report including: gender and inclusion concerns are integrated into training resources they develop for village volunteers, children, and stakeholders.

The JBF seeks to increase representation of women and disadvantaged groups in local institutions set up for water management through door-to-door reminders of upcoming decision-making events. The JBF increases women’s participation in the planning and management of water and sanitation projects at the village level through enabling them to voice the need for projects and help fundraise.

The JBF empowers women at the village level by facilitating equal participation of men and women in the decision-making process in Jal Sabha. Unfortunately, Amita describes how women are frequently absent or underwhelmed with participation because of their familial roles, and how many times during site visits women do not speak. At least one woman is encouraged to occupy a leading position in a Jal Sabha, and thus ensured diverse voices are heard in community decision-making.

The JBF held training programs to have women spread awareness of safe drinking water practices, health, and hygiene. The JBF ensures that women are engaged in a number of participatory exercises to make sure that they are included in the mainstream of the project.

Women are also encouraged to form self-help groups. These groups consist of 10 to 15 women who come together, are involved in monthly savings, and undertake small income generation activities. The organization assists these groups in establishing links with banks and their services.

[In Part III of this four-part series, available on January 15th, Mihalich offers profiles of empowered women in India’s Thar Desert Region.]

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Allison Mihalich is a graduate of Virginia Tech’s Executive Master of Natural Resources program, and an analyst at the U.S. Environment Protection Agency (USEPA). Some key responsibilities include supporting the development of USEPA’s strategic plan,  implementing USEPA’s Cross-Agency Strategies aimed at improving sustainability, community-based work, building partnerships, and working as a high performing organization. Allison has also worked as a performance analyst specializing in Air issues and as a budget analyst.  Allison lives with her husband and dog in Falls Church, Virginia. 

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