Why women’s leadership matters to river governance in the Mekong Region — especially after Covid-19

Full Report SOK Women and Rivers.pdf

Download the full English language report above, or click here to access the report and translated Executive Summaries.

Authors of the State of Knowledge: Women and Rivers in the Mekong Region report, Dr. Delfau and Dr. Yeophantong share their reflections on the key messages and personal meaning they found in their process of interviewing women river managers and leaders in the Mekong region.

By Karen Delfau and Pichamon Yeophantong

June 18, 2020

Between January and February this year, when the threat of a global pandemic still seemed distant, we embarked on a research journey to assess the state of knowledge about women’s roles in water governance. We wanted to better understand how women lead and leverage their knowledge to manage critical river systems, such as the Lancang-Mekong and Nu-Salween, and the resources they provide that nurture the Mekong region’s livelihoods and vital ecosystems.

In the process of compiling the report, we explored the contextual challenges to women’s empowerment and leadership in river management, and tested our assumptions through a series of in-depth interviews with women (and a few men) who have been working directly in or with communities in Cambodia, China, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, and Vietnam.

The key message that we seek to convey, based on the findings of this State of Knowledge report released this week by International Rivers, might not come as a surprise to those working on gender and water governance issues: women’s leadership matters a great deal to managing rivers well because, as one interviewee put it, in the Mekong region “water is women’s daily business”.

Despite ongoing challenges, progress is being made across the Mekong countries to improve women’s participation in policy-making and support women leaders in the water sphere. Interviewees noted how women are gaining greater visibility within the government and corporate realms, but also how local women have long been at the forefront of major social movements to protect rivers as well as their livelihoods (transnational coalitions to save the Mekong and Salween come to mind here). Here, interviewees further highlighted how the connection between women and rivers is materially and spiritually inextricable. Just as women and the communities they help to sustain rely on these rivers, so too these rivers rely on women and their communities to safeguard them for the common good.

Textures of empowerment: Developing a ‘recipe’ for women’s leadership

What surprised us most over the course of the research was the complexity involved in defining effective leadership and peeling back its multiple layers of meaning. In the report, we detail the power dynamics that underlie women’s leadership and demonstrate how it changes along the spectrum of authority. But what’s certain is that women’s leadership, as a concept, can mean different things to different people.

How women’s participation in water governance transforms into leadership also varies greatly throughout the region. This prompted us to develop a ‘recipe’ to capture the conditions and interventions that enable women to take up leadership roles. But while the report does cite many examples of women successfully voicing their views and exerting leadership in governing rivers, it also acknowledges how women can still be left questioning their authority and self-worth at the end of the day. Patriarchal norms and gendered institutions that remain deep-seated within the region are largely to blame for this.

What this finding reinforces is a point that often gets lost in water policy: to achieve gender transformation in this area, the multifaceted roles of women leaders in managing and conserving rivers must be valued and recognized by others—as well as by themselves. Empowering women isn’t just about taking down external barriers and creating new opportunities. Neither is it enough to develop gender-mainstreaming protocols that, if not carefully monitored, can become mere box-ticking exercises. Although these efforts remain central to advancing the cause, unless women themselves value their own rights, knowledge and existing contributions, they simply won’t be sustainable.

Through our interviews and discussions with various stakeholders on women’s and local environmental knowledge, it became clear just how significant women’s knowledge is to their self-worth, collective survival, as well as the more effective management of rivers and their resources. Equipped with an intimate knowledge of the natural environment, local women often demonstrate an unrivalled understanding of the rhythms of the surrounding fauna and flora—one that is used to support their families and keep bellies full when times are tough. We hope that, in recording these insights in the report, we’re able to underscore the exigent need to preserve, revive and co-produce such knowledge; but also that, in verbalizing their knowledge, the interviewees are able to fully recognize and appreciate the value of the knowledge they hold.

The ‘triple burden’ of leadership exacerbated by COVID-19

We found that women leaders carry a triple burden due to the diverse roles that they assume: not only are they their families’ caretakers, but they are often responsible for maintaining community cohesion and acting as local environmental stewards. When women decide to take up leadership or decision-making roles, the burden of responsibility can increase ten-fold as a result.

Over the past couple of weeks, we’ve had conversations with a range of stakeholders to reflect on how women leaders are responding to the current COVID-19 crisis in the Mekong region. Our sense is that women’s household and community roles have grown in scope, as they need to secure the health and hygiene of their families to an even greater extent than ever before. With children home from school, and many formal and informal livelihood opportunities grinding to a halt, women have become much more preoccupied with managing childcare, family well-being and, in most cases, a stressed household economy. Indeed, early accounts of the pandemic’s impacts point to how women—especially in low-income households—are among the most vulnerable, as the risks from heightened socio-economic insecurity and gender-based violence have intensified across the region.

Faced with the pressure of competing duties, we suspect that women are less available at this time to participate in decision-making processes or foster the relationships needed to strengthen their roles in river governance. Given how the manifold implications of COVID-19 will likely leave a lasting imprint on the fabric of societies across the region, it is imperative now, more so than before, that the importance of women’s leadership to responsible ecological governance is spotlighted, and that women receive proactive support from their respective communities and governments. The progress—however limited—that has been made with respect to women’s leadership and empowerment in the Mekong region cannot be allowed to backslide with COVID-19. Utmost vigilance is needed.

Next steps: The 2020 Women and Rivers Congress virtual workshop series

At the upcoming Women and Rivers Congress virtual workshop series, we are looking forward to reconnecting with the many people that we had the opportunity to meet over the course of our research, but also to hear stories from others whom we have yet to hear. Given the uncertain but surely long-term impacts of COVID-19 on all aspects of life, we are eager to learn from participants about how things have changed, and how our arguments about the revival of women’s knowledge as a source of community and policy action can be realized under rapidly evolving circumstances.

To learn more about the Women and Rivers webinar series, visit https://www.womenandrivers.com/virtual-workshops.

To download the full State of Knowledge report, visit https://www.womenandrivers.com/resources/state-of-knowledge-women-and-rivers-in-the-mekong-region.