Empowering women in small, farmer-managed irrigation


Irrigation provides the ability for farmers to cultivate year-round, increasing both incomes and nutrition.

However, gender-related challenges of land and water access, labor, and group governance create several disadvantages for many farmers.

Our project, prioritizes the engagement of both men and women, from design to planning to implementation of irrigation systems. We aim to address current gender norms and dynamics that inhibit meaningful participation for women and other marginalized farmers.

Drawing on the diverse expertise of our project team and our four years of experience working alongside more than a hundred farmers in eastern Uganda, we have developed a set of tools and recommendations for groups seeking to integrate gender into small, farmer-managed irrigation projects. Our goal is that practitioners may discover new ways to support farmer-led innovations within irrigation and water management that meet the needs of farmers of all genders, within their local context


Major Gender Issues In Small, Farmer Managed Irrigation

Labor Time & Alternative Responsibilities: Women’s extensive responsibilities in staple crop production, domestic labor, child care, and non-farm businesses makes it harder to participate in group activities, take on leadership roles, and find time for irrigation and maintenance. This limited time means that challenges in sharing equipment and water results in less chance for them to irrigate effectively.

Socialization and Experience with Equipment and Machinery: Women and men both often question women’s ability to use irrigation equipment, however this is mainly due to social expectations that they are not able rather than actual ability. Women can become quite competent in irrigation equipment and works when given appropriate training and opportunities to try.

Ability to Rent Land of Appropriate Size, Location, and Cost: Due to the requirement of being near to water, most Ugandan farmers rent land in areas with irrigation access. Women often need to rent smaller plots, and pay landlords in installments, due to less control over household income than men. This requires organized ways for women to access irrigable land, such as savings-integrated irrigation groups and womens irrigation land trusts.

Leadership and Voice in Irrigation Communities: Women may be included in leadership positions, but in general they are far less represented than men, due to the perception they have less control and experience in irrigation plots. Working with irrigation communities to demonstrate that both women and men may have the right skills to represent irrigation members can help ensure buy in of greater women’s leaders

Women's Empowerment in Small-Scale Irrigation Index

The Women’s Empowerment in Agriculture Index (WEAI) is a survey-based index developed by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative (OPHI), and USAID Feed the Future. It is designed to measure the empowerment, agency, and inclusion of women in the agricultural sector.

Our project adapted the WEAI for application in small-scale, farmer-managed irrigation projects, and we are using it to understand women's challenges in participation in irrigation that persist between and among our project sites.

Our adapted survey is available for download here (PDF): Indicators for Women's Empowerment in Small-scale Irrigation in Uganda

Data from this survey is available to researchers, students, and others. Visit Data for access and to learn more.

Tool: Gender Training for Students in Irrigation and Agriculture

Within our work, the UC Davis HATCH: Feminist Arts & Science Shop, has developed a student-led learning program to encourage agriculture and irrigation university students to practically address gender and social equity in technology design. This includes a series of workshops, field visits, manufacturing facility visits, and other collective learning events, generating powerful discussions about gender in design. Student Leaders, are supported by mentors to learn about the complexities of gender, its applications in agricultural design, and the significance of participatory processes of innovation/

This has been incorporated into the student program at that continues the activities of the learning program and advocates for university support, builds partnerships with gender advocacy organisations, and enhances curriculum related to gender.

A report on how this has been implemented in Uganda is available here as an example of the activities and outcomes of this training program (PDF): Applied Gender in Irrigation and Agricultural Technology Learning Program

Tool: Gender Equity in Small-Scale Irrigation

Our project is currently developing a practical guidance toolkit on addressing gender equity constraints and opportunities in the process of designing and implementing small-scale irrigation projects, based on the successes and lessons learned over four years of our work in eastern Uganda.

The toolkit may assist development practitioners, non-governmental organizations, or agencies working directly with farmers on community and household-level implementation of irrigation projects, and does not intend to address policy-level constraints beyond local water user group institutions.