Research highlight: Women in India becoming more influential in irrigation

Women in Northern India are playing an increasingly important role in irrigation, a traditionally male-dominated activity, according to new research published in the journal World Development. This is improving female engagement in formal politics more broadly, says Alexandra Girard, author of the study.

Irrigation canals in Northern India are critical for local livelihoods, but they are also important for forming cultural norms and building social support within communities and between villages. These canals are governed by deeply embedded gender traditions, a reflection of the overall decision-making system in the community. Traditionally only men in the village make formal decisions regarding the canals or participate in their repair and construction. Women are informal actors: they channel demands and complaints through informal means, such as talking to their male relatives.

However, in recent years, women have come to play a more influential role in irrigation, a result of several gender-inclusive policies. First, some canals have had their management decentralised to formal local government institutions. These local governments are composed of 33-50% female members, as required by the 1992 Reservation Law. Second, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), a poverty alleviation scheme aimed at investing labour surplus into the construction of durable rural assets such as irrigation, must target a minimum of 33% of women. In practice, almost half of MGNREGA beneficiaries are women. Together, these gender inclusive policies are legitimising women as both formal decision-makers and labour force in irrigation.

The research examined how women’s new legitimacy in the traditionally male domain of irrigation affects their involvement in other formal political processes in their community, and in particular their participation in formal village meetings. Factors linked to the formalisation of women’s role were examined, as well as factors from the private domain (for example, age, education, household background). The survey consisted of 593 female canal users in rural areas in the Palampur region, Himachal Pradesh, as well as interviews with 37 local government members (male and female), and over 10 other irrigation stakeholders.

The results reinforce many existing findings on the link between women’s engagement in formal politics and their personal background (for example, older women are more likely to engage in village meetings). Most importantly, the study reached several novel conclusions on the positive outcomes of formally including women in male dominated activities such as irrigation, for female engagement in formal politics. Formally creating political responsibility and economic opportunities for women in irrigation increases their visibility and mobility, and introduces them to a world of political procedures, administration, and the politicising notions of rights and benefits, which in turn favour women’s engagement and participation in other formal politics processes in the community.

Alexandra M. Girard is a recently graduated DPhil student at Oxford University.


Girard, A.M. (2014) Stepping into formal politics: women’s engagement in formal political processes in irrigation in rural India. World Development, 57: 1-18.

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