Delivering equality means systems change, say IWMI experts

On International Women’s Day, Deepa Joshi shares a lesson from South Africa to demonstrate why delivering gender equality demands far-reaching systems change.

On International Women’s Day, Deepa Joshi shares a lesson from South Africa to demonstrate why delivering gender equality demands far-reaching systems change.

By Deepa Joshi
Gender, Youth and Inclusion Lead Specialist, International Water Management Institute

Photo: Jeffery M Walcott / IWMI
Photo: Jeffery M Walcott / IWMI

When apartheid ended in the early 1990s, 86 percent of all land in South Africa was in the hands of the white majority. The terrain was shared between 60,000 owners, while 13 million black people in poverty were pushed into rural spaces known as homelands to prevent them from living in urban areas. For these people, rights to land and water were denied, unclear or contested.

Several post-apartheid initiatives sought to address these injustices. They included: introducing legislation to enable tenants to apply to own land they occupied, and facilitate communal tenure (1991–1999); protecting farmworkers in white-owned farms from arbitrary evictions; de-coupling land and water ownership so that the state might become the custodian of water resources and allocate water more equitably (1998); and unrolling programs designed to help black communities become ‘emerging farmers’ and get a foothold in South Africa’s thriving agri-business (2001).

Despite these positive efforts, today’s reality for black farmers, and especially women, is one of continued exclusion. Evictions of tenants from white farms, which were ongoing when legislation was introduced to halt the process, have continued; many white farmers have simply chosen to mechanize their operations rather than employ labourers. Also, communal tenure does not challenge inherent inequalities within traditionally organized African communities, which are managed by powerful male chiefs. And the de-coupling of land and water ownership has not reversed enormous inequities in agricultural water use dating from the Colonial era.

A detailed ethnographic study on the experience of one such aspiring black, female smallholder, Mrs Ngcobo, exemplifies how inequality remains entrenched in South African land laws. Mrs Ngcobo had to comply with complex procedural formalities to register land, gain access to water and start farming. In all, the process took ten years and consumed considerable finances, well beyond the grant she received for supporting such emerging black farmers.

Mrs Ngcobo’s experience provides an insight into the challenges facing the poorest of black women. She was one of the better-off aspiring female farmers, with an employed husband and use of a plot of land that she sought to gain full ownership of. She was also able to deal with various legal and procedural formalities to secure both land ownership and water use rights. The challenges she faced make it clear that while policies have changed, the core design of legal and procedural systems renders them incapable of delivering transformative – and particularly gender transformative – change.

A global call for system-wide change 

International Women’s Day is an apt time to also celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, the visionary agenda for empowering women and girls. When adopted by 189 governments in 1995, the Declaration set out to remove the systemic barriers that hold women back from equal participation in all areas of life. Although there have been some major achievements since then – including the UN Security Council Resolution 1325 on women, peace and security; the establishment of UN Women as a global champion for empowering women and girls; and the launch of the global Sustainable Development Goals – real progress has been agonizingly slow for most women and girls around the world.

To mark the anniversary, UN Women launched the campaign ‘Generation Equality: Realizing Women’s Rights for an Equal Future’, through which it intends to deliver the Beijing Declaration’s unfinished business. Committed to making gender equality a lived reality for all women and girls, many of whom have been historically marginalized, it is calling on women’s rights activists everywhere to reimagine economies, societies and political systems so they can deliver gender transformative change in a way that ‘bolted-on’ measures – such as those highlighted here from South Africa – will never do. The question is, how can we bring such blueprints to fruition?

Understanding the complexities of inequality is key

IWMI’s two decades of research for development on water, in both rural and urban contexts, shows that a robust understanding of the complexities of inequality will be vital, given today’s rapidly changing food, climate and economic systems. Inequality by gender, crosscut by class, caste, ethnicity, age, disability and other factors, leads to disparities in power, privilege, assets, risks and opportunities for different groups of women, men and other genders. Not paying attention to these crosscutting relationships will render the most marginalized invisible and puts at risk the 2030 Agenda goal of ‘leaving no one behind’.

We have observed globally that climate-induced livelihood shifts present varying possibilities, consequences and vulnerabilities for different groups of people, including around migration. This is why, at IWMI, we are leading by example and placing gender equality and inclusion at the heart of our three strategic program areas: water, food and ecosystems; water, climate change and resilience; and water, growth and inclusion. We recognize that gender equality is key to achieving our vision of delivering ‘bold and innovative solutions for an inclusive water secure world’.

We strongly believe that achieving gender equality globally requires the realities of the excluded, such as Mrs Ngcobo and those even less privileged than her, to define proposals for new approaches and interventions. Citizen science and public participation provide the means to capture such experiences, and to identify strategies for inclusion. Transdisciplinary research methods combining biophysical and environmental sciences with socio-economic and political-legal analyses will be critical to putting this approach into action. Only by understanding the intersectional nature of inequality, and redesigning our political, legal and social systems around inclusivity, can we hope to achieve the equality that people of all genders deserve.

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