Women key to Mekong’s future and prosperity

Nakaisone Souk and women and men in her community earn their living by fishing and farming; they depend on the water resources of the Mekong River Basin for their survival. Nakaisone is from Don Sahong Island in southern Lao. Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam
Nakaisone Souk and women and men in her community earn their living by fishing and farming; they depend on the water resources of the Mekong River Basin for their survival. Nakaisone is from Don Sahong Island in southern Lao. Photo by Savann Oeurm/Oxfam

Women key to Mekong’s future and prosperity

by Lilian Mercado

Next week, the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Thailand and Vietnam will gather for the third Mekong River Commission (MRC) Summit in Siem Reap. A key aim is to enhance joint efforts and partnerships to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

The summit’s focus on SDGs presents an opportunity to put gender equality and social inclusion at the centre of Mekong River Basin management. It is widely recognised, regionally and globally, that space for women and girls to stand up, speak up and take action is central to achieving the SDGs.

Last year, Asean leaders adopted a declaration acknowledging that gender equality is a “precondition for the realisation of sustainable development”. Globally, the High-Level Panel on Water states that achieving SDG 6 on water requires action which listens to the needs of women, men and all social groups including those who are often left without a voice.

In the Mekong, women play important roles in the use and management of water and aquatic resources and are key contributors to local economies. Women and girls farm and fish, work in agriculture and fisheries throughout the river basin, manage household water supply, undertake cleaning and washing duties in rivers, grow riverbank gardens, collect aquatic resources for food and income, are involved in value-added processing of aquatic products, and are the primary sellers of produce at markets.

Despite the multiple roles women play in water management, they remain under-represented or excluded from decision-making on how water resources are shared, developed and managed. Oxfam’s experience of working with farming and fishing communities in the Mekong region has shown that when women are involved in decisions regarding the use of their resources, development benefits are more likely to be stronger, equally shared and sustainable.

Targeted, committed and continual efforts are needed to create an enabling environment for women’s participation and leadership in water governance. This includes addressing underlying causes of gender equality; increasing women’s knowledge, skills and confidence to take a more active role in decision-making; and creating opportunities for women to participate and have their voices heard.

The Global Water Partnership (GWP), a global network with over 3,000 partner organisations, has identified four areas where urgent action is needed to drive gender equality and inclusion in water resource management.

• The partners and MRC must show commitment and lead the way to gender equality and inclusion; they must act urgently and commit resources needed to make this happen. While the MRC adopted a gender policy in 2000 and endorsed a gender action plan last year, there is still a gap between policy and practice. For example, a vast majority of the speakers and panellists at the MRC International Conference, which precedes the summit, are men, and “gender” or “women” are not mentioned once in the agenda. MRC and member countries need to ensure greater representation and participation of women within their own programs and activities, including major forums, if they hope to inspire others towards positive change.

• They must conduct gender analysis to understand women’s needs. Women and men use rivers and water resources in different ways, and they have different roles and responsibilities. Gender analysis is a critical first step towards designing and carrying out policies and programs that benefit women and men equally, and support longer-term positive change in gender relations.

MRC’s gender policy, adopted almost 18 years ago, calls on MRC to make every effort to disaggregate data by sex and include gender analysis in program design and implementation. Yet, according to the recently published MRC Council Study, which assessed impacts of water resource developments in the basin, a reliable gender analysis was not possible due to a lack of data and information.

• Women must have a say in decisions that affect them and be a part of all partnerships, through adopting a “nothing about them, without them” approach. Planning and decision-making on hydropower and other water resource developments in the Mekong lacks public participation, transparency and accountability. While the MRC has taken some steps to improve community engagement, much more can and needs to be done to respond to the priorities and needs of women and men that rely on the river for their livelihoods.

• Women, men, and their communities must have equal and inclusive access to and control of resources. This requires changing policies and practices that currently exclude women’s access to and control over water, land and natural resources.

The MRC Summit will provide direction for MRC and member countries’ priorities going forward. Gender equality and women’s participation must be at the forefront of enhancing efforts to achieve the SDGs in the Mekong River Basin. It is time for the MRC and member countries to walk the talk by acting upon the commitments they’ve made for more inclusive and sustainable management of the Mekong River Basin.

Lilian Mercado is the regional director for Oxfam in Asia.

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