Why joint consideration of the water, energy, food, and environment sectors matters for gender equality and inclusivity in Nepal

As IWD approaches, CGIAR is launching a new research initiative – NEXUS Gains – that focuses on developing integrated innovations and solutions across the water, energy, food, and environment (WEFE) sectors.

This year, the United Nations calls attention to “Gender equality today for a sustainable tomorrow” for International Women’s Day (IWD), celebrated annually on 8 March. As IWD approaches, CGIAR is launching a new research initiative – NEXUS Gains – that focuses on developing integrated innovations and solutions across the water, energy, food, and environment (WEFE) sectors, and places explicit emphasis on strengthening women’s leadership in developing and implementing nexus innovations.

To shine a spotlight on this initiative and its potential to advance gender equality across these sectors, we interviewed Dr. Manohara Khadka, Country Representative for Nepal at the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and key contributor to the initiative. Dr. Khadka reflects on her experience and expertise working on gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) and natural resource management (NRM); challenges and opportunities facing women working in the water, agriculture, energy, and environment sectors; and her hopes for the future.

Farmers weeding in a paddy field in Belanpur village in the Banke District of Nepal. Photo: Nabin Baral / IWMI
Farmers weeding in a paddy field in Belanpur village in the Banke District of Nepal. Photo: Nabin Baral / IWMI

Can you please tell us a bit about yourself and your background?

Dr. Khadka: I grew up in a rural agrarian setting in Nepal. In my village, I was the only girl who left home to earn a high school degree. I studied forestry before earning an MSc in Natural Resource Management and a PhD in Development Studies. Since then, I have been doing applied research on gender and social inclusion/exclusion in relation to water, forests, and natural resources.

What is your experience working on GESI issues?

Dr. Khadka: In a nutshell, my GESI work focuses on three levels: Policy advocacy, scientific research, and development programming. I have been working on these issues, which are close to my heart, in the Himalayas for nearly three decades. This work has become a passion since I started my first public sector forestry job in Nepal in 1988, right after completing the Intermediate Science of Forestry in Nepal program, where I faced many of my own gender-based challenges.

Over the course of my career, I have supported researchers, policymakers, practitioners, and decision-makers to understand and consider the socio-political and institutional complexities of natural resource management through a GESI lens.

NEXUS Gains focuses on developing integrated innovations and solutions across the WEFE nexus. Based on your experience in Nepal, what challenges do you see for women actors within these sectors?

Dr. Khadka: Women in the nexus sectors are key stakeholders, but they face significant structural barriers. The working culture in these sectors is still guided or influenced by masculine attitudes, behaviors, and mindsets. Women struggle to access these men-dominated spaces. For some women, being heard in policy and development spaces is even more difficult due to language barriers, caste, ethnicity, region, and class relations.

Furthermore, while collectives and collective action can be an important tool for women’s empowerment, women actors in the nexus sectors tend to have weak networks and limited opportunities and exposure to strengthen their skills, knowledge, and perspectives on NRM.

Deeply entrenched mindsets about gender roles further undermine gender equality in leadership, knowledge and capacity development, policymaking, and decision-making. There is also a critical lack of effort to understand and tackle systemic gender issues related to water, energy, food, and environment within the nexus sectors. Finally, resources (e.g. human, financial, methodologies) and institutional systems that could enable women and men stakeholders to become stronger agents for women’s engagement are lacking in that regard. Inclusion of women, especially from marginalized groups, in areas of technical education such as engineering is less than 15% of the total enrollment.

Have you seen changes in these challenges over time for young and emerging women professionals?

Dr. Khadka: Yes, definitely. In Nepal, there are more women in the public sector than ever before, and in more advanced positions. Importantly, women are also leading civil society organizations such as forestry user groups and are increasingly participating in food systems as entrepreneurs or business owners, which indicates that women are slowly moving toward non-traditional livelihood options.

However, women’s number in decision-making position of the nexus sector institutions is meager. We need to do much more to engage women in developing and engaging with the value chains and technological innovations we are concerned with as part of NEXUS Gains, such as solarized irrigation. I see an opportunity for engaging women in innovations at the water, energy, food, and environment nexus at all levels, from grassroots initiatives to national policymaking.

Do you see any new challenges or opportunities based on the current context, especially as regards climate change and COVID-19?

Dr. Khadka: Women’s knowledge and experiences should be central to building the resilience of populations and systems impacted by these changes. Women make up over 70% of agricultural producers in Nepal, and agricultural production consumes over 90% of all freshwater withdrawals. So gender and inclusion perspectives are key to consider for science and evidence-informed policy and development. Women’s roles related to ensuring domestic water supply and handling irrigation responsibilities increased considerably as a result of male outmigration for better paying jobs in cities and abroad. Women make up over 30% representation in the executive committees of water user groups, although the lack of their voices and meaningful participation in water decision-making is a systemic challenge. Meanwhile, women make up around 3% of the total workforce in the public engineering institutions, and around  17% of the engineering graduates.

Women’s roles and knowledge are critical to managing water, energy, food, forests, and biodiversity in the face of climate change. As such, ccience, policy, and development in the nexus sector should think of women as important actors.

NEXUS Gains has a work package explicitly focusing on strengthening the capacities of nexus actors, and particularly those of women actors through a leadership and mentorship program. What do you see as opportunities and challenges for such a program?

Dr. Khadka: Women nexus actors in Nepal may need to overcome challenges to participate in the leadership and mentorship program. Most women in Nepal are still responsible for unpaid household labor. Traditional gender roles, as well as out-migration of men in search of jobs and education, place a disproportionate burden on women that could keep them from participating unless they are supported by family members in sharing household activities. Furthermore, gender-friendly work environments are still limited, as is the number of men who support changes within the technical institutions that are concerned with water, energy, agriculture, and the environment.

Despite these challenges — which makes the work of NEXUS Gains even more urgent and necessary — the program can advance women’s meaningful engagement in development, planning, and policymaking processes within the nexus. In particular, the program will support women to develop their networks and knowledge; participate in research, evidence-informed science, and policy dialogues; and share their perspectives and experiences about the importance of gender equality in the nexus sectors, which are key to achieving transformative outcomes in the realms of water, energy, food, and the environment. Nexus Gains will also endeavor on strengthening the leadership skills of women.

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