The pathways for gender equity and women’s leadership in water governance

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A confident and brave young woman who talked passionately and clearly, Dary Thanh, from the “Women on air” radio program of Oxfam’s partner Northeastern Rural Development in Cambodia (NRD), inspired participants to realize that many things are possible.

With the support from Oxfam, Dary was in Phnom Penh to attend the OXFAM & IUCN Gender and Women’s Leadership in Water Governance workshop on 11 & 12 July 2016.  She shared challenges being a woman in her community and how she addressed and led the integration of gender including her participation in radio show, and engagement in the advocacy together with local authorities on protecting Mekong River and natural resource in her community.

“We can dare to speak. I am not as nervous to talk today. We might not have the same education and salary, but we have equal rights to speak,” said Dary Thanh who confidently addressed the room to explain how information sharing platforms are an opportunity to develop confidence and include women in decision-making.

With participants from Cambodia, Lao PDR,  Myanmar, Tibet and Vietnam, the workshop mobilised women and men from around Southeast Asia to discuss pathways for gender integration in water governance rather than it being seen as an ‘added extra’ to programs and policies. The aim was to listen to gender leaders to develop the overall understanding of the regional context and build support systems to further develop and support their leadership.

Many participants said it was Dary’s own story of change and growth in confidence that inspired them to commit to taking the workshop ideas, knowledge, and new networks back into their organisations across the Mekong region.

“If we share our experiences it promotes bravery in other women,” Sary Meach, Gender officer from NRD, summarised.

“I think we do need individual women leaders to show or lead the way for other women. The development of women’s leadership will bring the voices of women to policy level and high level platforms and this is very important,” said Raphael Glemet, Senior Program Officer from IUCN Asia Regional Office.

Discussion on integration gender in water governance

Drawing on the experience from civil society groups, international non-government organisations and government, the workshop centred on the question of, “how can we integrate gender in water governance, and how can we facilitate a link between policy and community?”

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Facilitator Dr Kalpana Giri encouraged participants to use the opportunity to discuss practical pathways they have identified for gender integration in water governance and identify what else is needed to make programs and policies more gender sensitive.

She stressed the importance of using the collective voice of those attending to identify how to   strengthen gender equality in the current available space, where decisions about how water is managed and shared across borders is a pressing reality.

“Gender equality must be a precondition. Women’s inclusion is a means to achieve better outcomes in sustainable water management. It is about meaningful participation to address the gender gaps beyond acknowledging the number of women attending a meeting” she said.

Mekong Regional Water Governance Program Manager, Ms Pauline Taylor McKeown, highlighted the vast amount of experience in the room from individuals and institutions working at different levels of water governance and said this provided the platform for an informed discussion about integrating gender.

“We are bringing you together because we want to hear what you think, take your advice and learn from each other, so we can work together to improve in this country and reach out across the region,” she said.

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The market-place Technique

The ‘market-place method’ was introduced to establish an interactive environment for the ‘stall-owners’ to share the techniques used in their communities to increase women’s involvement in water governance.

Stalls presented concepts for inclusion of women in leadership positions and analysis of the gender divide, with teams delving into discussion on how to network these civil society initiatives throughout the region, and connect these ideas at a regional level to influence policy.

From Lao PDR, Ms Honkeo Duangdy, Project Officer at Japan International Volunteer Centre, agreed that this ‘market –place’ had increased her knowledge of how to involve women through different approaches and added that this form of presentation would be invaluable in the communities she works with.

“I learnt how to conduct the ‘market-place’ sessions and I believe this is a platform to help villagers gain confidence to discuss issues. This method enables participants to talk in a natural environment and can deliver ideas, messages and problems outside of a formal and intimidating dialogue,” Ms Honkeo said.

Key learnings from the workshop

For the participants the concept of sustainability in water governance isn’t new. However, the focus on women’s leadership and putting women in the centre of their projects is a different approach and creates a space for innovation and more effective development. The concrete action plans identified by each country will be discussed and taken forward with the support of Oxfam and IUCN.

Mrs Luong Thi Truong, Director of Centre for Sustainable Development in Mountainous areas Vietnam (CSDM), said while CSDM’s work focuses on ethnic minority women in natural resource management (NRM) the workshop made the connection between NRM, water, and the impact on women.

“Women’s leadership is new in water governance.  As water resources have become scarce or polluted women’s leadership is only more important as ethnic communities are rich in knowledge of how to manage water resources and sustainability, and should be able to contribute to the conversation,” she said.

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For others participating from communities across the region where there is less awareness of gender inequality in water governance, the knowledge shared at the workshop sparked a desire to raise awareness in their own communities.

A Weaving Bonds Alumna from Tibet said: “In my community we don’t have women’s groups to work on gender and water governance. The most important thing I’ve learnt is about the importance of gender equality and how others develop their knowledge and learning.  Following this, I will hold a workshop so my community becomes more interested in gender and water governance.”

Reflecting on the workshop Ms Thanh Tu, Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, said she learnt about the importance of translating policy into implementation and action.

“The workshop reaffirmed that CSOs are pioneering in transboundary water governance. Though in law we have quotas for the number of women in decision making positions, this needs to be fulfilled on the ground,” she said.

Mr Sengsoulivanh Inthachak, Head of Water Resources Section from Department of Natural Resources and Environment of Champasak Province, Lao PDR said the main lesson that he gained from the two day workshop was hearing the experiences of people from across the region on how to understand the gender division of rights, roles and responsibilities at the community level. He could now see how to empower women and acknowledge their role in the use and management of water resources, and how to integrate their roles and responsibilities into the government management plans.

Ms Isabelle Fauconnier, Water Policy Advisor from IUCN Asia Regional Office, summarised for the meeting that gender is not only a women’s issue, but a humanity issue, and explained the broader concept of gender equality in the region as “striving for men and women to enjoy the same opportunities and influence in results and actions.”

“An entry point for gender inclusion? If you treat gender separately it will fail. Gender integration should be the top objective rather than something to insert here or there,” she said.

Oxfam Mekong Region Water Governance

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