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The water question in feminism: water control and gender inequities in a neo-liberal era

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The current neo-liberal moment in water policy appears to offer possibilities for realizing feminist ambitions. Several feminist scholars see the individualization and privatization of resource rights as offering possibilities for confronting gender inequalities rooted in, and reproduced by, historic and structural male favoured access to productive resources such as land and water. But we seriously doubt a progressive feminist potential of neo-liberal reforms in the water sector. We focus on water used for agricultural purposes, because neo-liberal water proposals are premised on taking water out of agriculture to uses with higher marginal economic returns. A first set of doubts involves water as a specific resource, largely because of its propensity to flow. Rights to water are less fixed and more prone to be contested at various levels and in different socio-legal domains than rights to other natural resources. The second set stems from our disagreement with the ideological underpinnings of the neo-liberal project. It reflects our concern about how water reforms articulate with wider political-economic structures and historical dynamics characterized by new ways of capitalist expansion. Furthermore, mainstream neo-liberal water policy language and concepts tend to hide precisely those issues that, from a critical feminist perspective, need to be questioned. Feminist reflections about tenure insecurity and social inequities in relation to water clash with the terms of a neo-liberal framework that invisibilizes, naturalizes and objectifies the politics and powers involved in water re-allocation. A feminist response calls for challenging the individualization, marketization and consumer/client focus of the neo-liberal paradigm.

Keywords: feminism; gender; neo-liberalism; water management; water rights

Document Type: Research Article


Affiliations: 1: IHE-UNESCO Delft Institute for Water Education, Delft, The Netherlands 2: Wageningen University, Centre for Water and Climate, Irrigation and Water Engineering Group, Wageningen, The Netherlands

Publication date: August 1, 2009

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