The Recipe for Women's Leadership: Nang Shining and the Mong Pan Youth Association

Photo: A woman on the Salween River, Local residents and especially women rely on the river for their livelihoods. Photo by Mong Pan Youth Association.

While indigenous and local communities defending their rivers and lands often face violent repression and criminalization for their work, women who are leading these fights are met with an additional set of challenges to overcome. These challenges pervade personal, social, and political spaces. The State of Knowledge: Women and Rivers in the Mekong Region report seeks to identify these challenges, and lays out a "recipe" for successful women's leadership that addresses them. As an example of how this recipe comes to life, one woman leader in the Mekong Region, Nang Shining, tells us the story of her work to empower the youth of her community to participate in the management of their traditional natural resources.

By Melanie Scaife | June 30, 2020

If leaders are made, not born, what is needed to make one? For Nang Shining, sheer necessity is a crucial ingredient. Her hometown of Mong Pan in Southern Myanmar sits in the shadow of Mong Ton Dam, which if built will submerge her village and the surrounding area beneath a watery expanse the size of Singapore.

Mong Ton Dam is one of seven proposed dams in the Salween River in Myanmar. Already, some 300,000 people have been displaced to make way for its construction.

“My hometown is surrounded by beautiful mountains, and a tall, deep teak-tree forest. It’s an incredible place with a fresh breeze, clear, clean streams and rivers, green paddy fields, fresh food,” Shining says. “The abundance of natural resources—water, river, forests—brings wealth, prosperity, and happiness to residents. In the name of development, these rich resources have become a resource curse.”

Than Lwin River near the site of the Mong Ton dam project. Photo by Mong Pan Youth Association.

The scale of the imminent loss—human, environmental, cultural—is overwhelming, but for Shining, it has also been transformative, helping shape her into the formidable leader she has become.

Back in January, International Rivers embarked on a research project to examine women’s leadership in water governance. Through compiling the “State of Knowledge: Women and Rivers in the Mekong Region” report, we sought to better understand how women like Nang Shining lead and use their knowledge to manage important river systems—including the Nu-Salween—and the resources they provide that nurture the Mekong region’s livelihoods and complex ecosystems. As part of this research, we held a series of in-depth interviews with those working with communities in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

From this research, a “recipe” emerged as to what ingredients need to be in the mix for women to assume leadership in water governance. We identified five ingredients in total, and while no one woman we interviewed had all five, most identified at least three.

The first ingredient is identity—a strong personal and collective attachment to a river and its resources. Our research shows that when women’s livelihoods or identity are threatened—whether due to a hydropower dam, infrastructure project or environmental degradation—they will often be prompted to become more involved in decision-making, if not in leadership. For Shining, her strong attachment to her hometown and local environment is clearly a driving force behind her efforts to effect transformational change for her community.

The second is necessity, driven by a strong threat or risk perception. Indeed, it’s hard to think of a greater threat than the complete erasure of all you have known and loved for the sake of a hydropower development.

The third is knowledge—both creating and sharing it in ways that are accessible to women and which enable them to raise their collective voice. For Shining, this has meant serving her community “through sharing knowledge, enhancing people’s skills, and encouraging consideration of how to value things, particularly the relationship between people, and between people and the environment.”

To this end, Shining founded the Mong Pan Youth Association to empower young people and their community to be able to solve their own problems, access social justice and manage their own natural resources and community development. “I want to see youth and women as leaders rather than as followers in the social and political arena. Therefore, I encourage youth to choose, to critique, to manage, to decide by themselves and guide them when needed.”

Mong Ton villagers protest against the Mong Ton dam at a consultation meeting. Photo by Shan Human Rights Foundation.

Messages in support of keeping the river free-flowing and protected from the Mong Ton dam are set up by the Mong Pan Youth Association for the International Day of Action for Rivers at Wan Sala village, near the Mong Ton dam site. Photo by Mong Ton Youth Association.

The fourth ingredient is a woman’s ability to draw on the support of formal or informal networks—something Shining and others have done to great effect. “In Vietnam, women are taking leadership roles in Vietnam Rivers Network. In Laos, there are more women researchers than men. In Myanmar, women are playing leading roles in the Salween River Network,” she says. Shining has also co-founded a global network, Weaving Bonds Across Borders, to help women become more aware of their rights.

The fifth and final ingredient is agency—an ability to manage insecurities and self-doubt and maintain good mental health by drawing on support from family, the community, and broader networks. It’s a vital ingredient for women navigating a space traditionally dominated by men, as Shining knows.

“I have always faced the bitter experience when moving one step forward as a woman leader in the community amongst men. I always must find a way to defend myself, in the meantime maintaining a good relationship with men leaders. Nothing is impossible but it may take time and resources to be the change we want to see.”

At each step of the way, women seeking greater leadership must overcome many obstacles. While it’s a challenge to ensure that all these ingredients are in place before women can lead and have their voices heard, it does give cause for hope.

It is our hope that the State of Knowledge Report will be used to shape discussion within the movement and beyond, to strengthen the efforts of women like Nang Shining and their supporters. In an upcoming online workshop series starting on July 3, we’ll be in conversation with the report authors and several of the women leaders who played a role in the study to discuss how to implement the recipe for women’s leadership in river governance and protection—especially in light of the increased burden that the Covid-19 pandemic has placed on women leaders. We welcome you to learn more and register for the workshop series, and to share the news with your networks.