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Publication Review: Gender Dynamics in Water Governance Institutions in Zimbabwe

A woman participating to an irrigation project in Zimbabwe. Photo credit: UN Photo/Milton Grant

There are 2.3 billion people living in dry areas around the world, and many of them use irrigation to increase agricultural productivity in order to improve their livelihoods and achieve food and nutrition security.

In Zimbabwe, the decentralization of water management in irrigation schemes may be an opportunity for rural communities to actively participate in and contribute to the management of their development process. In this context, the GCIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems emphasises the need for a participatory approach to water management and development interventions that also includes women. The recent study “Gender Dynamics in Water Governance Institutions: The Case of Gwanda’s Guyu-Chelesa Irrigation Scheme in Zimbabwe” gives an example of the challenges encountered by women who are involved in irrigation schemes management.

Through documentary research, interviews, questionnaires and non-obtrusive observation the authors of the article investigated women’s involvement in the water governance intervention of the Guyu-Chelesa Irrigation Scheme in Zimbabwe. Guyu-Chelesa is a farmer-managed irrigation scheme located in the Mzingwane Catchment, which is part of the Limpopo River Basin in Matabeleland South Province. The majority of farmers in this area are women, representing approximately 75% of the labourers. Women are the major users of water, as they not only irrigate the fields, but also perform the maintenance of irrigation infrastructures, investing significant time and efforts into it.

This important participation of women in irrigation farming is reflected in their high involvement in the Water Users Associations. Despite this, gender inequality still strongly exists at the committee level of the institutions where the percentage of women, although high, is still not proportional to the number of women conducting irrigation farming, and their decision-making power is significantly limited.

The authors report that although women participate in meetings more consistently than men, their voice is generally not heard or barely accepted. For example, women’s ideas about management and rehabilitation of irrigation infrastructures are recognized only when the complexity of the issue is minimal. For the rest of the discussions, only men have the power to make binding decisions, while women are only given the possibility to reinforce them.  

As explained in the article, one of the reasons behind the limited women’s leadership is the male perception of women involvement in the management arena. Some women take part in the committee meetings in place of their husbands or relatives that cannot or are not interested in participating. As a consequence, men see the involvement of women just as a gap-filling strategy or as an imposition by men. This perception detracts the legitimacy of women engagement, resulting in limitations in their decision-making power.

Other factors generate the gender gap seen: in the studied region, patriarchal gender roles and power dynamics typically encountered within the household are reflected in many other contexts, including the irrigation context. Besides socio-cultural obstacles, women’s involvement in managing water resources remains incomplete due to challenges related to levels of technical expertise required. In addition, some of the irrigation infrastructures are not designed to be used by women. As a consequence, women cannot access them and contribute to infrastructure management and rehabilitation, widening the gender gap.

In order to reduce gender inequality within the water governance institutions, the authors recommend reducing the perceived knowledge and skills gap through the promotion of infrastructure management skills trainings for women. But other interventions are needed to move towards gender equity within water governance institutions. Quoting the authors:

There is also a need to address the fact that men seem not to appreciate women’s capability in management even when they are capable; this might be changed through structural gender-based reform mechanisms such as restructuring and redefining the societal position of women in water resources management. This would allow both men and women to be engaged in critical decision making in a gender-sensitive way.

The article illustrates that to achieve gender equality, women representation in committees is not enough because it does not assure the actual participation and contribution of women in the management arena. In the Guyu-Chelsea irrigation scheme example, women are well represented in the committees of the Water Use Association, but their actual power is limited. In order to tackle gender disparities the actual role of women and the factors that influence role definition have to be carefully studied and interventions that address both cultural and technical obstacles of gender equality have to be supported.

To read in detail the case of Guyu-Chelsea irrigation scheme in Zimbabwe, download the article here.


The study reviewed in this blog was conducted under the framework of the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems. The study was authored by E. Tagutanazvo, V. Dzingirai, E. Mapedza, and B. van Koppen.

About the author

Martina Antonucci is the Science Communications and Knowledge Management intern at the CGIAR Research Program on Dryland Systems.