The universal symbolism of water as the primal fluid – purifying, regenerating, creating and destroying – is closely intertwined with women's roles as bearers and nurturers of life, and collectors and managers of household water. In India, water is sacred and rivers are considered goddesses (Ganga Ma). Stories abound about the relationship between water and the feminine principle, connecting the life-bestowing power of water with the sacrifices women make during times of water scarcity.
Recognising women's multiple roles at home and in the community, planners have increasingly sought to involve them in water resources management. Participatory approaches facilitated by government and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) recognise women as farmers in community irrigation, train them as handpump mechanics, and involve them in decision-making in water resources development. Underlying the sustainability of these initiatives is an acknowledgment of the diverse needs of women and men in relation to water and the importance of linking access to water with other livelihood concerns (agriculture, health, social security, microcredit and non-farm income-generating opportunities).
Thus, the seemingly neutral state-market nexus, the myth of the unitary household, or the moral economy of the community actually embody contested relations of gender and social stratification, which determine struggles not only over rights to water, but also over ‘meaning’. This book is based on a nuanced understanding of the political economy of water management, and moves beyond a structural analysis of institutional constraints to look at women's agency in negotiating complex livelihood decisions.