In the Mekong region, women play key roles in the productive use and management of water and related resources and are important contributors to local economies. Women and girls manage household water supply, undertake cleaning and washing duties in rivers, grow riverbank gardens, collect aquatic resources for food and income, are involved in value-added processing of aquatic products, and are the primary sellers of produce at markets. Despite the multiple roles women play, they remain under-represented in, or excluded from, decision-making on how water is used, allocated, developed and managed. This is particularly problematic given that women are in many cases disproportionately affected by impacts from hydropower dams, water scarcity, climate change and natural disasters. There is a circular and self-reinforcing relationship between the constrained roles of women in governance, and the under-valuation of their roles in production and use of resources. Limiting women’s voices and participation impacts on their rights to access resources and limits their economic opportunities. Better understanding of the distinct roles and contributions of men and women leads to greater recognition of their distinct needs and interests in policies, programmes and projects linked to water management and resource development.

Key reform issues:

  • Institutional leadership and commitment to make gender equality and inclusion a core goal within government agencies, private sector companies, international organisations, NGOs, and community organisations
  • Conducting gender and inclusion analysis at all levels, including analysis to understand women’s needs, and gender analysis of equality contexts, project impacts and interventions
  • Ensuring women’s effective participation and equal opportunities for leadership at all levels of decision-making around water resources governance, including increasing women’s knowledge, skills and confidence to have their voices heard and take a more active role
  • Effecting reforms so that women, men, and their communities have equal access to and control of resources – both land and water – in both statutory and customary law and cultural practices

Current critique and debate:

For many decades there has been growing recognition of the need to include all parts of a community in water resources governance and decision-making and that excluding key segments of the population such as women will likely lead to projects failing. Mounting evidence points to the benefits of inclusive water resource governance, such as its potential to reduce existing inequalities, enhance cost–benefit ratios, and improve programme and project sustainability. Despite gender and inclusion strategies being developed within the water sector by some government agencies, private companies, donors, NGOs, and regional bodies such as the Mekong River Commission and ASEAN, achieving gender equality and inclusion in practice remains a major challenge in the Mekong region. Many gender strategies are not adequately funded or followed through; gender mainstreaming is not well understood; monitoring and evaluation processes often do not capture power dynamics occurring within water resources governance contexts that enable gender exclusions to be identified and addressed; and gendered impacts of water infrastructure are not well incorporated into planning and decision making processes. Moreover, underlying barriers to women’s participation often remain unaddressed, along with broader factors leading to exclusion and marginalisation such as ethnicity, age and disability.

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