Speaking Up Together: One woman's voice used to strengthen another's for the protection of the Mekong River

Photo: Phairin Sosai and Pai Deetes of International Rivers, joined by a partner and ally, speak up for rivers at the 2019 Day of Action for Rivers along the Salween River.

Throughout the Mekong region, women are taking on influential roles in governing the rivers and water resources on which they and their communities depend. Their rise to leadership is all the more impressive when you consider the many barriers they must overcome to have their voices heard.

The State of Knowledge: Women and Rivers in the Mekong Region report analyzes these barriers by locating them within four ‘areas of change’: agency; access to and control over resources; cultural and social norms; and the legal and economic context. It then identifies a range of actions that can be taken to transform these challenges into real opportunities for women to realize their leadership potential in river governance.

Here, International Rivers’ Phairin Sohsai explores the first two areas of change identified in the report—agency and access—through her own experiences as a leader working to empower river communities to achieve meaningful change.

By Melanie Scaife | August 11, 2020

Phairin Sohsai has been working to protect rivers and the rights of communities who depend on them for some 20 years. If these two decades have taught her anything, it’s that meaningful change takes time. That profound shifts in ideas, attitudes and perspectives often occur quietly, invisibly, beneath countless small victories. So, she was taken by surprise one day in a Bangkok courtroom, when she saw change happen right before her eyes.

Phairin had been campaigning for years for action on the devastating impacts of Laos’ Xayaburi Dam, which has harmed the livelihoods of millions of people living along the Mekong River, including in Laos and Thailand. So that day in November 2015 in the Thai Supreme Administrative Court is one she vividly remembers, when one of 37 villagers, who had traveled from Thailand’s eight provinces along the Mekong River, told the judge exactly what this dam had done to their lives.

“This was the first time the local people had been in a court,” says Phairin. “I had to encourage one woman there, Mae Sorn, a fisher from Ubon Ratchathani province. She catches fish every year and had kept a record of her sales going back 10 years. I encouraged her, I said you have a record, you’re the right person to talk to the judge. She wasn’t confident, she couldn’t sleep the night before appearing in court. But when she met with the judge, she told him why the fishery was so important to the local people.”

“In February, during the dry season, Mae Sorn explained how the fish migrate to pray at the most sacred Buddhist temple along the Mekong River, the Phra That Phanom Pagoda—this is a cultural belief of the local people in northeast Thailand and Laos. It’s a signal for the locals to travel too, to prepare to catch fish and pray at the temple. But now, the dam has blocked fish migration routes, meaning less fish to eat and sell. The judge just stopped and looked at her, because he would not usually get that kind of information directly, and I see change. The judge is listening to her! Now when we have a community meeting, she’s the one who is the leader—and she talks a lot!”

Photo: Mae Sorn sitting with a fellow Mekong community leader at the court hearing in 2015. Photo by: Montree Chantawong

Phairin laughs at the memory, and it’s a poignant moment, for here is a female leader with her own sense of agency and voice actively working to support another’s. While the Court dismissed the villagers’ case, Mae Sorn and other community members remain undefeated and an appeal is underway for the Court to recognize the importance of the Mekong River to the lives and livelihoods of communities in Thailand.

“I think this is success,” says Phairin. “Mae Sorn got the chance to speak about herself, and showed the other women that they can step up and overcome the barriers. It’s still in my mind, thinking about that day. It was a brave act and so great for her—and for us—to see what is possible.”

International Rivers’ State of Knowledge: Women and Rivers in the Mekong Region report argues that helping women find their agency and voice is critical for developing a strong cohort of female leaders within river governance and decision-making roles. While Phairin agrees with the report’s observation that women may not always feel safe or comfortable to speak openly and share their perspectives, she believes positive change is already happening.

“My experience in Thailand and the region is that it is not difficult for women to raise their voice. Within communities, I have seen a lot of women become leaders, not only in the dam movement but also in the mining movement. When these women speak they are strong, they speak up with real feeling, because they are the people who take care of their families and the river.”

Photo: A community meeting along the Mekong River in 2019. Phairin sits the fifth person from the right.

Phairin concedes though, that women remain excluded in terms of the decision-making process. “They’re listening to women but there’s still a gap—the bureaucratic system in Thailand and the region is still dominated by men.”

Phairin also agrees strongly with the State of Knowledge report’s findings that women’s knowledge tends to be undervalued when it comes to decision-making around rivers and river governance.

“Women’s knowledge is given less importance compared to technical knowledge. The river resources, the fisheries, they’re very important to the local people in terms of their livelihoods, but when it comes to the decision-making process, these hidden values of the river and women’s roles are not considered. The people in authority, the ones making decisions, they have different knowledge, different backgrounds, and we have to work hard to get them to recognize the importance and value of women’s experiences of the river.”

Photo: Phairin by the Mekong River.