In a historic development, Sindh Assembly has passed an amendment, giving a well-deserved and long overdue share to women in managing water for farming. The legislation comes after decades of struggle led by local farmers for equitable distribution of water, spearheaded in recent years by women who strived for more control over their agricultural work. While water scarcity has been a predicament across the province of Sindh, for female farmers in the region, the fight has also been about undoing the patriarchal order that impacts their lives and livelihoods.
After the amendment, Sindh Water Management (Amendment) Bill, 2018 now guarantees representation of women in provincial and water bodies, which includes 45,000 Water Course Associations (WCAs), over 350 Farmer organizations (FOs) and 14 Area Water Boards (WBA). Observers stress that the fight has been long and it took many years to achieve the victory.
A look at the agricultural scenario of Sindh underlines that the farming in the province has been facing serious water scarcity. The once fertile lands of Thatta and Badin have now turned barren. To address the situation, Sindh Water Management Ordinance (SWMO) was passed in 2002, which required the establishment of farmers’ organizations at each distributary, for the equal distribution of water. However, the issue with the step was that it had not offered proper representation to the women farmers.
According to the Pakistan Bureau of Statistics (PBC), women make 77% of farmers in Sindh, which is a huge number. A 2015 study of FOA revealed that women’s role as the farmer has enhanced in last two decades, and the major reason behind is that a major chunk of men has left for cities or developed areas for better earnings and escape the landlord system. This has given women an active role in farming. The report said, “Women in Sindh are involved in crop production from sowing to harvesting stages, rural women in agriculture, they should be recognized as women farmers rather than sharecroppers or helpers. Women in rural Sindh work on average for 12-14 hours a day.”
To give the women their due share, a female Member of the Sindh Assembly, Rana Ansar, started her struggle. The lawmaker from Mutahida Qoumi Movement (MQM) believed that women have no visible role in water resource management. While addressing a consultative dialogue on Sindh Water Management Ordinance (SWMO) Amendment, Ansar said: “This must be addressed in the SWMO amendment so that women are encouraged to identify issues pertaining to the province’s water needs and make required decisions.”
Addressing at the same event Chairman of Sindh Commission on the Status of Women, Nuzhat Sherin, said: “All parliamentarians of Sindh support this amendment bill, and all parties are lobbying to pass it.”
In an interview, Ansar said that the bill has made it mandatory to include two women in all watercourse associations, FOs, Board of Governance of Sindh Irrigation and Drainage Authority, and AWBs. “If 46,000 WCAs are in Sindh then 92,000 women will become the part of WCAs all,” she said. The legislator called it a historic achievement because if any of the above-mentioned bodies would not include two women, they would become ineffective, which eventually would lead to disqualification.
Giving his opinion on the bill passing, Executive Director of Management and Development Foundation (MDF) and activist, Mustafa Hassan said, “This bill will pave the way for landless women farmers and farm labourers to have a significant role in water resource management and the irrigation systems across the province. He further added that the landless and peasant women farmers will now become active members of the governing bodies, which is a huge win for them.
Analysts stress that the amendment is truly a major win for women farmers in Sindh because in the patriarchal set up their role has long been ignored. Although in rural areas across Pakistan, women have been an essential and vital part of farming, their role has been sidelined for centuries as it is being considered their ‘duty’.
Feminist activists call the bill a ray of hope for women farmers across the country and hope that women in other provinces would also get such rights and power so that they can make decisions for their own lands, and exercise control over their farming and distribution of water.