Khaisone, Leader of the Women's Union in Don Sehong Village (left), and Atheena, active member of the village's Farmer's Group (right)

Women Leaders in Water Governance - “How Women Leaders Break Through their Challenges”

The Mekong river is the main livelihoods and sustenance source for most of the populations that live in the Mekong region. Women, who often play a critical role in the usage and management of water and aquatic resources, depend on the river for food, washing, and cleaning as well as other activities to support themselves, their families, and communities. Despite their engagement in water-dependent activities, they are often overlooked from decision-making and consultation processes on water-related issues.
In early March 2020, Oxfam together with our partner CliCK, visited Ban Sehong Village, Don Kong District, Champassak Province, to interview two women leaders involved in advocating for sustainable livelihoods and water resources management. Don Sehong is situated in Champassak Province, Southern Laos, where one of the large-scale hydroelectric dams has been constructed and it is located about two kilometers upstream - between the border of Lao PDR and Cambodia and has an installed capacity of 260 Megawatts. During the visit our team spoke to two women, community leaders who taught us that extensive and deep knowledge of the natural environment exists within communities and women have important roles to play in sharing this information.
Atheena, 33, is from a farmer family and married with two children. She lives in Don Sehong village, Champassak province, Lao PDR. Her husband is working for the Don Sehong Hydropower Company to support the family. Khaisone, 52, is a mother of two and the leader of the Women’s Union in her village. Her ten years of experience engaging the public and media on various social issues has put her at the forefront of efforts to safeguard her community and its natural resources. 
Most of the villagers are farmers and they are dependent on the Mekong river as a main source of income, for food, and as the main route for transportation. However, in recent years the river has changed, water is gradually shallowing leading to many issues - especially for those who live along the river’s banks. “In recent years, our village started experiencing livelihoods and food security issues due to decreased water levels and fish populations,” “This encouraged me to join the Farmer’s Group to support my community," said Atheena.
Through the Saoban Research project, Khaisone and Atheena had the opportunity to engage in community development training organized by CLICK Sao Baan Research Project. They learned about diversifying small-scale businesses and alternatives such as raising livestock, land cultivation, and agricultural practices.
As mothers, housewives, and farmers, Atheena and Khaisone are trying to balance their time between household work and the community. They decided to engage more in community development work and use their time to mobilize and support communities to come together in addressing the impact of dam development on their livelihoods. However, with limited knowledge and understanding of policy and regulation around water issues, they could not advocate with companies and they decided to adopt a different coping strategy - to learn how to build alternative livelihoods with less reliance on river resources. This illustrates a key factor that hinders progress in resolving water-related issues - that National and regional water governance institutions do not engage with gender organizations or women’s groups and dialogue tends to focus on the technical rather than social and gender aspects of water governance. 
Knowledge builds confidence and experience builds strength. After many years in her role, recently, Kaisone and her group have lobbied local, district authorities to urge them to revise water management regulations. While Khaisone has observed that she and the Farmer’s Group’s contributions on water-related issues are acknowledged, considerable work still needs to be done to ensure that discussions progress to the provincial and national levels.
“Concerns and requests of women need to be integrated into the village plan before the plan is finalized and executed for better and successful implementation and development."  
“Women also have ideas and desires to ensure that plans meet their needs. Therefore, engaging women in village activities and development plans will effectively and efficiently help address issues and enhance development in and for the communities," said Manivanh Sayavong, 52, Director of the Gender Development Association, who strongly believes that women have a crucial role to play in planning and executing water and resource management activities. Manivanh has been in the development sector since 1990 and has worked with various organizations, including Oxfam Australia. In a recent interview with Oxfam, Manivanh shared that as a Lao women leader and her pathway has been one of commitment, passion, patience, and challenging her internal beliefs about herself as well as external perceptions of her as a woman leader. As one of our women leaders, Manivanh would like to encourage all women to work together and support each other to overcome poverty, advocate for their rights, and develop their skills and capacities. She also calls for women to take up new opportunities wherever possible and not to be limited by mistaken beliefs about what women can achieve.
Learning from Manivanh, Khaisone, and Atheena, it is important for Oxfam to make their stories more visible and to celebrate their success through the creation of these profiles and those of other Mekong women leaders.
Understanding their challenges makes it even more inspiring to read the stories and see the images of these remarkable women who are part of these Women Leaders Profiles. These women are uniting previously disenfranchised communities, accelerating positive development outcomes for everyone, and contributing to the achievement of gender equality and the protection of our natural environment. They are shaping local, national, and regional change in innovative ways and are demonstrating collaborative leadership in action – uniting people toward common goals and providing us with role models for inclusive leadership.
In celebration of Lao Women’s Union Day, taking place on July 20, 2020, Oxfam and partner organizations urge both the public and those working in development to acknowledge and support the roles that both women and men share in managing water and aquatic resources. It is equally vital that stakeholders address the many disadvantages that women throughout the region continue to experience in the sphere of water and resource management. Khaisone and Atheena are exemplary models of Lao women taking leadership and action at different levels, and as gender main-streaming is becoming a fundamental focus in the water governance curriculum at the National University of Laos, the future outlook of women’s' participation in water and resource management is positive.
A significant step in achieving a more equitable system lies in the vigilance of governments, national and regional water governance groups, and civil society organizations to bring the Women of the Mekong to the discussion and planning tables.

Sources consulted

IUCN, & OXFAM. (2018). Gender and water governance in the Mekong region. Bangkok: International Union for Conservation of Nature.