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Sharad Maharjan/IWMI

Why we need to discuss masculinity in the water sector

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Over the last year, there has been an extraordinary wave of global activism on behalf of women’s rights. From protest marches to social media campaigns, women have been demanding change. They’ve been demanding fair treatment, equal rights, and an end to harassment.

While the development sector is not without gender controversy, it is consistently championing gender equity as a core value of its work. From training sessions to project quotas, guidelines to women’s groups, gender has become a permanent fixture of most development initiatives. Yet, what’s often missing is tackling the issue from the angle of masculinity.

The water sector is no exception. Despite progressively trying to incorporate gender into water solutions, some still wonder, what does gender have to do with design, technology and water resource development? And what’s masculinity got to do with it all?

Participants in a recent workshop, titled Unpacking Masculinity, came with similar uncertainty. The workshop, hosted by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) in Nepal, aimed to look at why gender equity has been so difficult to achieve, both in development projects and in society at large.

In the development sector, including water, gender is generally misunderstood as ‘by women and for women.’ Similarly, gender equality can sometimes be perceived as something to be achieved through fixed quota systems in user associations. Conversations about cultural and social structures that privilege ‘masculine’ qualities over ‘feminine’ ones are rarely brought into the equation. The question needs to be asked – can change possibly occur by focusing only on women?

Bringing masculinity into the picture

To combat rigid gendered roles and responsibilities, expectations and stereotypes of men must be deconstructed alongside those of women. While women are often expected to present “feminine” qualities by being nurturing, compassionate, and accommodating, it’s often culturally taboo for men to show emotional and physical vulnerability. This is not to suggest that men suffer as much from gendered societal expectations as women, but that deconstructing gendered expectations of both men and women is a necessary step for achieving gender equity.

Men need to be engaged in conversations of gender equality just as much as women, a reality that is highlighted globally through initiatives like the UN’s HeforShe campaign. By acknowledging that gender equality is not just a women’s issue but a human rights issue, the HeforShe campaign suggests that when men fail to allow for a diversity of experiences of women, they are reinforcing a binary approach to gendered norms that negatively affects them as well. When women are seen as being more than just mothers, wives, sisters, and daughters and are encouraged to also be brilliant students, effective government workers, and successful business leaders, then the social expectations for men also change and become less limiting.

At the Unpacking Masculinity workshop, a male participant commented that the first time he understood that social inequality existed was when his sister was expected to clear the plates and wash the dishes after a family dinner while he was allowed to just sit at the table. His grandmother told him, “You don’t have to clean your dishes because that’s a girl’s role.” He described feeling uncomfortable that certain duties were expected of his sister and not of him.

By engaging men as well as women in discussions on gender inequality, men can start to see how the very social structure in which they are raised creates the unfair and unequal expectations that are often perceived as being unchangeable. Once this reality sinks in, men can recognize and speak up when clear gender bias is exhibited, and shift their own gendered expectations of abilities and behaviors. While women have been on the forefront of the fight for gender equity, they are only half of the population and men need to be involved if societies are to be truly gender equitable.

What Does Challenging Masculinity in Water Resource Development look like?

It isn’t enough to have women participate in training, in an event, or in a water users group. The substance and nature of women’s participation must be evaluated in relation to society at large. Improving the quality of women participation when they have a seat at the table requires unpacking and deconstructing gendered norms and expectations. The facilitation of such deconstruction cannot lay in conversation with women alone because men contribute as much, if not more, to gendered expectations and outcomes. Thus, programming that helps challenge these expectations and norms must be developed for men as well as for women.

As for the role that gender has in design, technology, and water resource development, the gendered expectations that we carry affect how we perceive challenges, how we consider solutions, and how we make decisions in all aspects of our lives. For example, new water infrastructure that does not use design to consider how men and women interact with it differently can fall flat. Water infrastructure that is perceived to be technical or requiring physical strength may make women feel as if it isn’t their place to be involved in its use and repair. Either creating infrastructure that can be perceived differently or creating training to shift gendered expectations is necessary.

Considering gender and deconstructing masculinity in the water sector can increase the chances of formulation of gender-sensitive policies such as equal opportunities for men and women staff, and encourage gender-sensitive work practices. Hopefully by considering the role of masculinity in water projects, both women and men can build better safeguards, attitudes and practices. And the sector will move forward alongside the various movements taking place around the world.