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This paper presents empirical evidence on issues of gender roles, agricultural livelihoods, and social differentiation in communal small-scale irrigation studied in Ethiopia and Argentina. Findings revealed that irrespective of the cultural setting, many women in irrigation remain constrained by structural inequalities regarding access to secure, reliable and affordable irrigation water. These constraints are driven by entrenched power dynamics, social relations and wealth handicaps. These findings contrast with long-standing efforts to devise agricultural policies aimed at reducing gender asymmetries and improving conditions for women in agriculture. In this paper, the case for strengthening irrigation as an empowering livelihood option for rural women is presented.