IUCN’s BRIDGE programme and the Oxfam Inclusion Project, in collaboration with the Lao Women’s Union, facilitated a regional forum on gender equity and women’s leadership in transboundary water governance from 13 to 15 September in Vientiane, Lao PDR. The forum, which provided a platform for dialogue and networking among actors in the Mekong region, was attended by more than 60 representatives from the government, civil society organisations (CSOs) and the private sector from Cambodia, China, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Thailand and Viet Nam.
The forum began with a high level panel, facilitated by Australian Ambassador to Lao PDR Mr John Williams, which discussed opportunities to promote women’s leadership in national and transboundary water governance policies. It also highlighted steps taken by governments in Cambodia, Lao PDR and Myanmar to improve social inclusion and gender equity in national policies.
The Government of Cambodia, for example, has established an inter-ministerial Technical Working Group on Gender with representatives from all national ministries. Myanmar is taking a sex-disaggregated approach to its Strategic Assessment of the impacts of proposed hydropower developments in the country’s primary river basins, in which the unique socio-ecological context of women will be taken into account.
In Lao PDR, the government is working to include the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including SDG 5 – Achieve gender equality and empower all women and girls – in national and local planning processes, policies and strategies. Lao PDR’s 8th National Socio-Economic Development Plan – the country’s guiding strategic policy document – has already linked its indicators to those of the SDGs.
On day two of the forum, presentations from CSO representatives from Myanmar, Viet Nam, and India highlighted strategies by civil society organisations and local governments to support gender equity and women’s leadership and identified cultural norms and preconceptions about gender roles as primary challenges.
It was agreed that cooperation among the civil society, government and academic sectors is necessary in order to fill knowledge and capacity gaps. The engagement of women’s unions in regional water dialogues must also be ensured, and their experiences and knowledge used to inform policy and planning, particularly with regard to climate change adaptation and Disaster Risk Reduction (DRR).
“Women play a critical role in providing, managing and safeguarding water resources,” said Ms Phoutsakhone Ounchith, Head of the IUCN Lao PDR country office, “making it necessary to identify ways to enhance their participation and leadership in water governance at all levels.”
Vishwa Ranjan, BRIDGE Programme Officer for IUCN Asia, shared the story of Ms Rinku Das, a young woman elected leader of Namkhana Panchayat (village cluster) in the Indian Sundarbans. In 2013, the state government of West Bengal had enforced a policy reserving seats for women in local elected bodies and also initiated efforts to build capacity of women on ecologically sustainable livelihoods. Today, Namkhana Panchayat is headed by a woman; has achieved impressive results on water, sanitation and hygiene (WASH) indicators; and hosts several active Women’s Self-Help Groups. These groups ensure that local women have enough opportunities to engage in economically beneficial activities such as weaving nets, rowing boats, processing fish, and collecting shrimp and crabs to sell.
The forum closed with a discussion about ongoing regional efforts, such as the Vientiane declaration on Enhancing Gender Perspective, the ASEAN Women’s Partnership for Environmental Sustainability, and the partnership between the Lao and Vietnam Women’s Unions, which aims to engage national governments in supporting the inclusion of gender in all aspects of water governance polices and planning.
Building River Dialogue and Governance (BRIDGE) is an IUCN initiative that focuses on enhancing water governance capacities in nine trans-boundary basins in three regions across the globe. Through approaches that emphasise stakeholder learnings and consensus building, BRIDGE aims to catalyse transboundary cooperation for equitable and sustainable water resources development. BRIDGE is implemented by IUCN with the support of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation. In the Mekong region, BRIDGE activities are carried out in the Sekong, Sesan and Sre Pok river basins.