Water access and gender
Table of Contents
- Why does gender matter?
- Gender vs. sex
- Gender formed by culture
- Gender, the environment, and gender mainstreaming
- Cultural gender norms and water
- Effect of climate change on women and water
- Precipitation pattern changes
- Sea level rise
- Glacier melt
- See also
Why does gender matter?
Gender vs. sex
Gender and sex connote two different characteristics that can be used to describe individuals. “Sex” refers to biological, physiological structures that differentiate males and females; this terms describes chromosomes, organs, and hormones. “Gender,” on the other hand, refers to the culturally conceived differences between people based on their sex. When discussing femininity and masculinity, womanly or manly characteristics, one refers to gender, not sex. Sex has very little variation; gender, between cultures, can vary widely in what it means (Kimmel 2013). Jennifer Fluri defined gender in relation to how it manifests on one’s body based on one’s biological sex definition: “Gender is an expression of the social roles, norms, and expectations that are mapped onto one’s biological body…[but] differences between women and men are not firmly dichotomous” (Oberhauser et al. 2017, 26). Kimmel also argues that there is a power-relations dynamic inherent in current conceptualizations of gender, and these power relations place men as in power above women, and often above other men (Kimmel 2013).
Gender formed by culture
Gender, by definition, is constructed based on cultural understandings and expectations of how men and women should behave. These behaviors become entrenched in individuals due to the influence of culture on daily lives, and the acceptance of gendered norms of behavior are reinforced through performance, or acting in accordance with mainstreamed expectations of one’s gender. Under the concept of performativity, gender becomes the act doing behaviors associated with a particular sex based on cultural norms, and repetition of this performativity results in gender roles becoming normalized social behaviors. Because gender reflects culture, gender norms can shift over time as society and cultures change (Oberhauser et al. 2017).
Acts of performativity of gender both result from and reinforce dominant social and political concepts of gendered behaviors. Those who do not perform gender according to dominant gender concepts engage in code-switching. These concepts include how different people experience access to natural resources, space, and place. Feminist geographers recognize that gender roles and norms can include differences in how different genders have different experiences and associations with certain spaces and places: “places…are perceived and experienced differently by different groups of people” based on gender, race, class, and other forms of labels and categories. Patriarchal and heterosexual norms can mean that public places and private spaces can hold entrenched expectations of behavior based on gender and identity which can disadvantage people who enter those spaces while also not conforming to these expectations and norms. Gender can further inform how different groups of people move through such spaces, in a concept called mobility, both in terms of large-scale movements of large groups but also including movement in the patterns of everyday life and responsibilities (Oberhauser et al. 2017).
Gender, the environment, and gender mainstreaming
Feminist political ecology (FPE) seeks to question and inform understanding regarding how gender, and other social labels and classifiers, influence how people relate to and interact with the natural environment. In particular, FPE examines how gender roles and power relations influence divisions of labor along gender lines in sectors closely tied to the environment, such as agriculture and subsistence farming, population studies, and family health. FPE research and literature views human-environmental relations as heavily influenced by gender, power relations, and divisions of labor (Oberhauser et al. 2017). Recognizing this branch of scholarship and connections between gender roles and natural resource use, development-focused organizations often attempt integrate gender equality goals into development and sustainability projects by paying increased attention to women’s roles in community engagement with the environment (Ivens 2008). Gender becomes integrated into these environmentally-focused and development-oriented policies, projects, and programs through gender mainstreaming, which further encourages the convergence of women’s issues and gender equality with natural resource protection and development projects (Dankelman 2010).
Cultural gender roles and water
Beginning in the 19th century, water management, access, and technology was considered a masculine domain. In contrast to this culturalized dimension of masculine technological control, water gathering and supply to family units remains primarily a woman’s task in most regions of the world where water gathering is a main chore. This water work is also largely unpaid household work based on patriarchal gender norms dictating that women are the main actors responsible for most tasks involving water, such as laundry, cooking, and child care (Bennet, Davila-Poblete, Rico 2008). Gender norms can negatively affect how men and women access water through such behavior expectations along gender lines–for example, when water collection is a woman’s chore, men who collect water may face discrimination for code-switching and performing perceived women’s work (CAP-NET and GWA 2006). On the other hand, the same norms often result in women being pressured to collect and use water in an efficient and timely manner, without the advantages of modern technology (Krishnaraj 2011).
Effect of climate change on gender and water
The warming of the earth’s climate has had many adverse effects on societies all over the world. In many areas, people suffer from drought, flooding due to sea level rise, and other threats to their food and water stability and accessibility. It has been noted that gendered vulnerabilities that may already be present in some societies have been amplified due to the threats posed by climate change. Disparities between gendered roles in the household and who holds a family’s assets become even more drastic when a family unit is faced with competition for essential resources like water (Eastin 2018). Additionally, gendered accessibility to disaster relief and resources allows for marginalized groups to be disproportionately affected by climate change related disasters (Knight et al 2012). These are all factors that need to be addressed through a combination of empathy, policy, ethics, and action as a greater number of marginalized groups are being affected and displaced by the effects of climate change.
Precipitation pattern changes
In the past ten years, the Brazilian Amazon has already faced some of the most disastrous droughts and floods due to changes in precipitation attributed to climate change. Other climate changes in this area have been noted such as an increase in the dry season length, increased river discharge, overall reduced precipitation and temperature increase projections (Menezes et al 2018). Areas of Northern Brazil were studied to determine the vulnerability of the people that live here and determine the factors that influence their vulnerability (Menezes et al 2018). This study focused on the systems in place to address future hydrometeorological climate change disasters as well as socioeconomic conditions already present.
People that live in highly impoverished were found to be more vulnerable to the effects of climate change (Menezes et al 2018). As found in another study, it is common that societies with less access to resources due to poverty tend to reinforce gendered societal structures because of low socioeconomic mobility of women (Eastin 2018). Those already in power in societies unequally impacted by climate change receive the majority of available resources while those already in poverty continue to be discriminated against and given very little to survive.
Sea level rise
Sea level rise may be one of the most impactful side effects of climate change and will influence the lives of countless people. As habitable area like coastal and low lying areas become inundated with ocean water, the percentage of the population that is affected by this sea level increase will also rise (McAdam et al 2016). There has been widespread disruption to global water resources as a result of increased ocean transgression and loss of freshwater sources. Over half a billion people live in low elevation areas that will be affected by sea level rise and the influences it may have on agriculture, freshwater availability, and habitable spaces (McAdam et al 2016).
The right to water is not explicitly stated in the United Nations’ International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR) report, which although implicitly stated, may become problematic as people affected by sea level rise may need to leave their homes and seek refuge elsewhere (McAdams et al 2016). Disaster relief has been and continues to be gendered, and leaves room for discrimination and allows marginalized groups to be disproportionately affected by natural hazards (Knight et al 2012). As has also been seen before, when resource availability decreases, marginalization increases, and already structured societal discrimination is reinforced (Eastin 2018). The gendering of resources available to those affected by sea level rise and other natural disasters caused by climate change is a jarring reality of current social systems around the world.
In Africa, women are responsible for nearly 80 percent of agriculture and water collection, and yet they remain in poverty (Zoloth 2017). As farms become infertile and water tables run dry from desertification, families are forced to move their homes and find refuge elsewhere. Particularly in areas that rely heavily on agriculture, desertification results in a widespread loss of fertile land and ultimately adds to gendered vulnerability by reinforcing previously established gendered roles (Eastin 2018). When food is unavailable in a community due to desertification, women have reduced bargaining power, and are less likely to obtain independent socioeconomic status and are more reliant on the systems that discriminate against them (Eastin 2018). A lack of water means women in these areas of the world means it is more difficult for women to safely carry a pregnancy to term, give birth, nurse their children while maintaining self hygiene by washing and caring for themselves and their infants (Zoloth 2017). The large disparity between overconsumption of rich countries and the lack of access to basic resources in the poorest areas of the world needs to be addressed through a combination of ethics, policy, and action. Doing so will increase resource accessibility which will then indirectly lessen the reliance on gendered societal structures and allow women to have more mobility and bargaining power within political and societal systems.
The majority of the world’s glaciers are being adversely affected by climate changes and have been retreating due to the global increase in temperature. The mountain glaciers found in the high altitudes of the Andes are not exempt from this general trend. The large scale retreat of the Andean glaciers, although temporarily providing extra water supply to groups of people downstream of the meltwater during the dry season, there is a long term threat to dry season river discharge (Vuille et al 2018). The fresh meltwater from the glacier is used for agriculture and drinking water in Peru and many other highly populated areas downstream of the retreating Andean glaciers.
Additionally, in Peruvian culture, there are strong connections between masculinity and power over water, and ultimately, a decrease in water availability will lead to further discrimination and a gendered power imbalance for water (Delgado and Zwarteveen 2007). Much like the incidents in previous case studies, in the face of a lack of resources, societies rely upon the patriarchal structures in which creates a greater gendered imbalance. Those who began in power continue to receive the majority for the resources while those in poverty and with little independence or social freedom continue to suffer must rely upon the system (Eastin 2018).
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