Women’s leadership in the Water, Energy, Food and Ecosystem (WEFE) Nexus in Nepal

Social justice and equity must drive a sustainable approach. Women and disadvantaged groups need equal growth opportunities to become the next generation of Water, Energy, Food, and Ecosystems Leaders.

From appearance to reality

By Gitta Shrestha, National Researcher – Gender Social and Environmental Justice, IWMI

Women’s participation and leadership in natural resource governance is a much-advocated and celebrated agenda in Nepal. However, despite waves of success credited to national movements and the country’s commitment to international instruments on gender equality, the reality falls short of real agency and autonomy for Nepali women.

Farmers weeding a paddy field in Belanpur village of Banke district of Nepal. The paddy field is irrigated from the Irrigation Channel of Sikta Irrigation Project. Photo: Nabin Baral / IWMI
Farmers weeding a paddy field in Belanpur village of Banke district of Nepal. The paddy field is irrigated from the Irrigation Channel of Sikta Irrigation Project. Photo: Nabin Baral / IWMI

In Nepal, the natural resource sectors are filled with narratives that call for women’s participation in user groups. But often these do not acknowledge or act on the gendered constraints to effective participation and leadership that continue to hinder integrated and holistic resource governance.  Although gender equality is key to the just and sustainable governance of natural resources, women are still underrepresented in decision-making in these sectors particularly with regard to leadership positions.

These challenges, as well as potential solutions, were discussed at a roundtable on women’s leadership in governance and management of water, food, energy and ecosystems held on May 20, 2022 in Kathmandu. The roundtable brought together 20 women professionals from diverse sectors to discuss their collective experiences and the constraints to women’s leadership. The event was organized as a part of the NEXUS Gains initiative, which includes among its aims developing the capacity of emerging women leaders and supporting their empowerment through more active decision-making and leadership in the governance and management of water, energy, food and ecosystems.

Inequality in leadership

Sustainable Development Goal 5 on gender equality and women’s empowerment advocates women’s full and effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making in political, economic and public life. This leadership extends beyond representation. The roundtable participants were in agreement about common gender-based constraints across institutional environments and decision-making spaces, including access to information and opportunities. An engineer, for instance, stated that “men are always two steps ahead of women because they receive more opportunities for technical training and international exposure.” Similarly, other participants experienced access to opportunities as unequal and unfair. In their view, priority access to opportunities went to those higher up in the hierarchy – usually men –  rather than deserving individuals.

In addition to gender, diverse and intersecting social identities such as age and economic status deprive women of leadership opportunities. Nepal has quotas for members of socio-economically marginalized groups seeking civil service recruitment, as well as at the resource user committee level. Several roundtable participants expressed dissatisfaction with how these quotas are implemented in practice. One declared: “Quotas are received not by those who actually need them. Quotas are not inclusive without considering intersectionality, for example, rural vs urban. An individual should not receive repeated quotas.” In her view, equal access to opportunities was imperative in addressing tokenistic representation and encouraging women’s leadership that can have real impact.

Furthermore, gendered assumptions, such as the idea that women are less interested in fieldwork, and women’s lack of access to technology and information, influence their pathways to leadership positions. Homophily – the preference for interaction with individuals of the same gender – and lack of institutional support in the form of childcare as well as a lack of focus on gender within organizational agendas, further limited women’s upward mobility, according to the participants.

Prerequisites for women’s leadership in WEFE

Women professionals discussing potential solutions to enhance women’s leadership in the WEFE sector in Nepal. Photo credit: Gitta Shrestha / IWMI
Women professionals discussing potential solutions to enhance women’s leadership in the WEFE sector in Nepal. Photo credit: Gitta Shrestha / IWMI

The participants highlighted the need for enabling policies and institutions and a change in discriminatory attitudes for more inclusive leadership. Several measures were necessary to enhance the confidence of women, including support from family and male colleagues, the establishment of psycho-social counselling services, the creation of safe spaces to talk about uncomfortable issues (e.g., harassment) and, most importantly, the acknowledgement of women’s ways of doing things, as well as their knowledge, skills and other specific contributions. In addition, targeted and compulsory provisions (e.g., maternity and paternity leave, access to sanitary pads, breastfeeding rooms and dedicated gender budgets) were regarded as priority areas that required immediate attention within organizations.

For greater awareness on gender equality and social inclusion (GESI) issues, the participants recommended the adoption of participatory methods such as gender role play, drama/theatre, men’s participation in GESI dialogues, education on toxic masculinity and enhancing the analytical skills of those implementing WEFE programs (e.g. social methods and approaches). The participants also stressed that men should take more responsibility to educate themselves on GESI issues, and should support and advocate for GESI agendas.

The roundtable concluded with a call for tailored and comprehensive capacity-building packages with dedicated budgets to be implemented in organizations, more monitoring and evaluation, and new reflective mechanisms on power relations (e.g., gender bias). Packages should include regular coaching, mentoring, dissemination of analytical skills, networking, collaborative knowledge exchange mechanisms, GESI indicators integrated into individual performance management plans, and transparent criteria for opportunities, such as prioritizing female staff for technical opportunities that arise.

Women’s leadership in NEXUS Gains

A WEFE nexus approach offers a holistic and integrated framework for managing resources in the face of the climate crisis and emerging impacts on water, energy and food resources. To be sustainable, social justice and equity considerations must be at the heart of such an approach. This requires equal opportunities for the growth of women and disadvantaged groups. The NEXUS Gains initiative pays particular attention to youth and women as leaders in achieving inclusive and sustainable development, partnering with them in generating evidence-based policy and innovative solutions. The broader goal is to create a space that supports women’s alliances and builds their capacities into the NEXUS science agenda more widely, including by strengthening practical skills in analysis, advocacy and negotiation that can enable them to overcome future constraints in becoming the next generation of Water, Energy, Food and Ecosystems Leaders.

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