As the sun sets in rural Tajikistan, farmers start heading to the main building in town for their water users association meeting. All heads turn as their leader, Chairwoman Mamlakat Abduqahorova, calls the meeting to order. In this male-dominated society, the farmers in the room look to Abduqahorova for direction. She has been successfully leading the Havaskor-1 Water Users Association since its formation in March 2012, and is part of a select few women who lead water users associations in Tajikistan.
The economy of Qubodiyon district in the Khatlon region, and the food security of its people, relied primarily on a collapsing, irrigation-fed agriculture system developed to grow cotton when the country was part of the Soviet Union.
“No one wanted to take responsibility for [the system's] maintenance and improvement within the last 15 to 17 years,” Abduqahorova said. “People were too busy with their own problems and the government did not have enough funds.”
One of the key activities in the U.S. Government’s Feed the Future initiative in Tajikistan is improving farmers’ access to irrigation water through water users associations. Feed the Future works in 19 focus countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin American and the Caribbean to combat hunger, poverty and undernutrition. In Tajikistan, the initiative helps farmers like Abduqahorova manage and operate their own local irrigation systems, including planning fair and efficient distribution of water, and planning for infrastructure maintenance. Since 2004, USAID–which serves as the lead agency for Feed the Future– has helped form over 50 associations, organized into four federations, benefitting over 200,000 people in Tajikistan.
The Feed the Future-supported water users groups are empowering women to have more decision-making authority in their households. They work with fellow water users along the canals and share information on waterborne diseases, food preservation and undernutrition. They also can enter the house of a female water user when there are no men at home; custom forbids male association members to enter a female water user’s house without a male relative present.
“Women have the potential to be the ideal leaders,” Abduqahorova said. “Working in the fields, we experience firsthand how lack of water affects the ability of crops to grow. As mothers, we understand the plight of other families and see the impact on the nutrition of our children. It is because I am a mother, wife, mother-in-law and grandmother—which I managed successfully—that I believe I can successfully manage the water user association in my district.”
The men of the association believed that too and voted her chairwoman. Abduqahorova raves that now more women are interested and engaged in the water association’s progress. “Women with leadership skills are taking more initiative and organizing their own farms and employing other women on their farms,” she said.
Scarred by the disarray and mismanagement of irrigation infrastructure over the last 20 years, Abduqahorova says: “We put a lot of our time and effort into this process and, as a result, will never let it collapse again.”
Last updated: January 20, 2015