Women in Leadership: behind the scenes

Even in countries where gender norms prevail, women have, and will continue to, forge a path to leadership. With support from organisations like the CGIAR and IWMI, we can continue to equip both men and women with the knowledge and tools to lead.

By Eleanor Ross, Strategic Communications Specialist, IWMI

This year’s theme for International Women’s Day is female leadership. When we hear these words, the women who come to mind are those visible in the political arena who are inspirational to many. Women like Angela Merkel, Jacinda Arden, Michelle Obama, Malala Yusuf and Greta Thunberg. Making their presence felt, their voices heard in a world engineered for men in leadership positions was not always easy. Some of them grew up in a society, where they experienced not just gender, but also racial injustices. For some, women were not supposed to have a voice or education. Some were considered too young to have an opinion, others too radical in their opinions and vision. Yet, all of them persisted, strong in the values they stood for. These women were not silenced.

Photo: Prasun Deb

At the International Water Management Institute, we honour those remarkable women, and we draw attention to the women who rose to positions of leadership against all odds. Abebu, Mastura and Lalita are the inspirational women we’d like you to meet. People like Abebu Gari, who understood women had a right to be heard. People like Lalita Oran who managed to increase her family’s income thanks to a growing confidence in her own ability to manage water.

Abebu Gari, 52, Ethiopia

Abebu heads a household with 23 grandchildren, 13 boys and 10 girls.

“I was simply a member of our Irrigation Water Users Association (IWUA) who often attended meetings and accepted the decisions of our leaders” said Abebu, “But one day after a training session on how to strengthen our IWUA, when female members were given an opportunity to be elected as committee members, I was elected too”.

“I am now the deputy chairperson of the IWUA and at the same time still a member of the women’s sub-committee” says Abebu. “I know my responsibilities and rights. I understand all men and women have equal rights, so I started to teach other women to ask for their rights too.” Abebu works to improve iWUA functioning, ensuring women’s rights and benefits.

I invite women in my locality to visit my farm and I share my experiences with them,” says Abebu “I always encourage women to participate. In our IWUA meetings I tell everyone that men benefit as well, from women’s participation in water use management”.

As a result of her active participation in meetings, Abebu has grown in confidence, increased the crop yield for her water user’s association, and been able to consistently support her entire family.

Mastura Sayfutdinova, Uzbekistan

“I got the name Pomegranate Queen because I started my business from nothing and by the age of 22 I was head of a collective farm unit. I was never afraid to start new activities from scratch, and I have always believed women can hold leadership positions.”

Mastura Sayfutdinova is chairperson of the water user’s association ‘Kuva Buz Anori’ in Uzbekistan and also Chairperson of the Association of Pomegranate Producers in the Ferghana Province. These achievements are significant in a country where men are more visible and naturally assumed to be leaders.

By the time she was 28, Sayfutdinova became the head of the entire collective farm in Kuva District, Ferghana Province and she served in that role for 20 years. During that time it became one of the most productive and successful farms in the region. Being a leader of a water user’s association set her up to achieve great things. She served as a member of Uzbek parliament and in 2017 and established a private company specialising in the cultivation of pomegranates. All this after taking the initiative to lead a water user’s association in her dry valley.

“Previously, each farmer went for water himself. Now, farmers pay for the services, and the WUA provides the farmer with water. If disputes occur, members are treated by the Water Users Union, which includes representatives from all of WUAs. Their mission is not only to monitor, but also to prepare the work plan, search for funding, and resolve on-going issues.”

Lalita Oran, India

Lalita Oran, is a 29-year-old married woman. She is illiterate but that did not stop her from becoming the leader of a collective farming group. Prior to the project, she had long been working as daily wage labourer. Her husband Ramesh Oran was a seasonal migrant labourer, often going to New Delhi to earn additional income for the family.

Since becoming leader of the farming group, she trained in conflict resolution, land preparation, crop selection, seedbed preparation, irrigation management, harvesting, linkage building, and marketing. She confidently and ably represents the collective she leads, where small plots of land owned by members are consolidated and farmed jointly. There is a sharing of labour, costs and profits. By coming together, the group becomes stronger, is better able to negotiate with key stakeholders, with other farm owners most of whom are men.

Lalita works with nine other women to collectively manage open field crops and poly house cultivation. Following the introduction of new crops like potato, cauliflower, spinach, and coriander and combined with agroeconomic trainings, these vegetables have started to be grown for both own consumption and commercial sale. In fact, she was so successful that she became leader of the first group of women to grow coriander in the province.

More important than profit (although they’ve gained that too), the women have gained confidence. One year ago, male farmers had doubt about female farmers’ abilities, but now they appreciate them. One male community member, had said, “women are capable to manage high return vegetables under poly house and open field crops like potato, radish, mustard, and wheat.” Lalita is also successfully operating the solar irrigation system. The participatory trainings, planning, and implementation has also led landless and landholding farmers getting to know one another and to a process of learning and sharing between them.

Since Lalita joined the collective, the earning of the household has increased, it has also increased the confidence of both her and her husband to achieve cash income from agriculture. Now, her husband no longer has to migrate to New Delhi.


If there is one thing these case studies show, it is the power of women’s leadership. Even in countries where gender norms prevail, women have, and will continue to, forge a path to leadership. With support from organisations like the CGIAR and IWMI, we can continue to equip both men and women with the knowledge and tools to lead.

Find out more about Water Users Associations.

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