January is a good month for lunchtime talks… Yesterday we had Lucie Kufova, Masters student at Fribourg University, presenting her research into gender aspects in water governance in Kyrgyzstan. Lucie was hosted by our SEP project over five weeks last summer through our Junior Research Fund. This small fund allows a few students per year to conduct field work with one of our projects as part of their Masters programme. The student works with a local researcher, thus fostering mutual exchange and cultural understanding.
SEP supports the efficient use of irrigation water, working primarily through Water User Associations (WUAs) – public municipal bodies. Although relatively recently created, WUAs are male-dominated institutions. As those who have worked on irrigation in Central Asia will testify, irrigation is essentially a man’s domain – in part because of the history of Russian hydraulic engineers, and in part a longer association of heavy work often done at night, effectively precluding women. Lucie was asked to focus her fieldwork on the involvement of women and disadvantaged people in the distribution of irrigation water, and how they might be included in project activities more pro-actively. Of course this was a huge topic for a short period, but no-one expected Lucie to come up with radical new ways of working. Rather, it was hoped that with her rather openly defined topic and external perspective, she would stimulate reflection and ideas. This indeed she did.
Lucie conducted her research in two settlements – one predominantly ethnic Kyrgyz, and one predominantly ethnic Uzbek. In the light of the 2010 ethnic riots in Sothern Kyrgyzstan, this was a calculated choice. Helvetas works with both communities and seeks to build on commonalties rather than differences. In the case of the particular settlements in which Lucie worked, SEP has a somewhat longer association with the ethnically Kyrgyz one, and staff reported that the engagement of women in WUA meetings was far greater than in the ethnic Uzbek settlement. This fitted with perceptions of religiously inspired limitations on women’s public activities in ethnic Uzbek communities. Lucie observed for herself the low participation of ethnic Uzbek women in meetings. However, in subsequent discussions with men and women in their homes and in the fields, the picture became less clear. Lucie found that many ethnic Kyrgyz women – and particularly those from disadvantaged households – had little or no idea of the WUA rules and decisions. In contrast, the women and members of disadvantaged households in the ethnic Uzbek settlement were relatively well informed.
It is tempting, of course, to find explanations rooted in ethnic norms for these differences. Ethnic Kyrgyz communities are organised by blood line, so members of particular settlements tend to belong to the same clan. Ethnic Uzbeks tend to define their identity by location or mahalla and are not necessarily closely related. Lucie wondered if the sense of belonging to a mahalla supported greater communication between households. Another difference she noticed was in the way of working of the two Murabs (those responsible for water allocation). One felt it important to work from his office; the other spent his days in the fields, interacting with water users. Perhaps this explained the difference in knowledge-sharing between the two settlements. An additional point that she made was the importance of the local mullah in sharing information to men through the mosque in both communities.
One of the practical consequences of Lucie’s fieldwork is to make us think again on whether public meetings are the best way of disseminating information locally – at least to women. Probably the project needs to do more in using multiple communication channels, including separate women’s meetings. This leads to another issue that has already been under discussion, which is of taking an integrated approach to water management. Whilst irrigation water is mainly men’s domain, drinking water is seen as women’s, and also an issue that particularly affects more disadvantaged households (which do not have a piped water supply). Integrated water management would, then, be one way of pro-actively bringing women and socially marginalised families into the sphere of project influence.
Whilst I was not alone in being impressed by the insights Lucie obtained from a mere five weeks in the field, she herself expressed some frustration in being unable to provide clear answers to the questions that she raised. Yet questioning our assumptions is a valuable exercise in itself, giving fresh impetus and new ideas for project implementation. We should make it a habit.