Women & Rivers

Photo: Munduruku indigenous women participate in the July 2017 occupation of São Manoel hydroelectric dam in Brazil. Courtesy of Juliana Pesqueira.

Freshwater resources around the world are under threat. In our era of climate instability and increasingly severe natural and man-made environmental disasters, sustainable development and conservation of water resources will require the active participation of all those who use and depend on water – all of us.

While women often play critical roles in providing, managing and safeguarding water resources, women’s participation in decision-making over water resources remains limited. Solving today’s most pressing water issues depends on not just the participation, but the leadership, experience, and guidance of women.

To address the role of women in water and rivers, International Rivers and its partners convened the inaugural Women and Rivers Congress in March 2019. The event brought together close to 100 women from more than 30 countries to celebrate the fundamental role women play in defending and stewarding freshwater resources, as well as to spur collective action to challenge the deep-rooted, gender inequities that women face in safeguarding rivers and river ecosystems.

Congress participants jointly developed a Celebratory Statement, and a roadmap for collective action in the coming years. Each participant represented an extraordinary wealth of knowledge and capacity in their own right, and have committed to pursuing early stage actions across each of these domains. However, to be effective much more needs to be done. The roadmap below charts a course and we welcome and encourage others to expand upon and join in this endeavor.

Congress participants are encouraged to continue building their collaborative support networks with women water leaders and sharing resources through an internal listserve, as well as this site. The site will serve as an open-access information hub, collecting resources and content from participants and making it freely available to all.

Roadmap for Action:

1. Generate Knowledge and Influence

While there are pockets of academic and local knowledge documenting the importance of women and rivers, it is largely decentralized, under-communicated, and under-utilized. Most importantly, this critical knowledge is not having the significant impact on water governance that it should. The result is that women’s knowledge and interests remain marginalized, while political processes can too easily ignore them. Initiating a “state of knowledge report” that is co-created — drawing together academic review and community women local knowledge — was identified as a key next step in addressing the problem. It was also seen as critical to framing wider needs and opportunities for women's interests, while linking research/documentation with policy development and governance decision making.

2. Mobilize Resources

Less than 0.2% of all philanthropic dollars are dedicated to women and the environment. To be successful, we need to work with and influence the philanthropic community to scale-up funding through evidence-based storytelling and documentation of the urgency, need, and value of investing in rural women freshwater stewards. Increased funding should employ innovative, flexible funding approaches that genuinely respond to the needs of women at the forefront of change.

3. Strengthen the movement

While women have been at the forefront of efforts to protect rivers and river ecosystems for generations, the interconnected, translocal global movement is nascent. Building on the success of this Congress, we need to build “grassrooted” alliances with community and grassroots women at the forefront of change with integrated ecosystem of support from NGOS, researchers, academics, and funders. Existing capacities and knowledge need to be bolstered and fortified. Risks or threats to safety, security, health, and wellbeing of women and river ecosystems need to be identified alongside mechanisms and allies at the local, national, and international level to provide redress and support. Women leaders will take the lead in developing legal and policy frameworks.

4. Frame the narrative and tell our stories

There is no unifying narrative that unites the initiative and struggles of women water stewards and protectors in common purpose. To be successful, we need to proactively develop and amplify positive framing and stories about the contributions of women and rivers leaders, as well as the threats they face, using traditional, social, and multimedia channels. Women on the frontlines should be prominent spokespeople in this growing movement, and should be supported with trainings and opportunities to speak forcefully and publicly about their experience and knowledge.