What’s Gender Got to Do with the Governance of Land? | Land Portal

A Recap of the Recent Land Portal-MRLG Webinar on Gender Equitable Land Governance in the Mekong Region

 

On Thursday 15 February, the Mekong Region Land Governance (MRLG) project and the Land Portal launched the first webinar in the State of Land in the Mekong series. The series, which will consist of three webinars across 2024 and 2025, aims to shine a spotlight on land issues in the Mekong region during a time of immense rural transformation.

 

 

 

 

Thursday’s inaugural session, “Women’s Participation in Land Governance in the Mekong: Moving Beyond Quotas to Meaningful Inputs and Influence” was moderated by Dr. Elizabeth Daley, Chair of the Land Portal Foundation. The two-hour session involved interventions from six panelists, with representation from Myanmar, Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam and the MRLG Team. The impetus for this webinar was the release of two new publications by MRLG  – MRLG’s flagship publication on gender and land governance, the Outlook on Gender and Land in the Mekong Region  and a specific thematic study, Towards Gender-Equitable Land Policy and Lawmaking in the Mekong Region.

This blog provides a brief overview of the insights that can be drawn from the session. To hear the full recording, including the panelists’ responses to a host of interesting and relevant questions from a very active audience, please click here.

To start, it is worth noting that over 500 participants registered to attend the session, from 87 countries, with a large cohort from South Asia, Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa. The level of interest in this session is significant – reflecting the concerning reality that women’s participation in land policy and lawmaking (and land governance more generally) is not just a Mekong-specific challenge. Around the world, women’s participation and voice in both the governance of land, but also in reforms around land and natural resource management, continues to be unequal - despite decades of effort to foster more equitable and inclusive governance.

But let’s begin at the beginning. The panel commenced with an overview of the regional Outlook on Gender and Land in the Mekong report - presented by Dr. Micah Ingalls, the MRLG Team Leader. Dr. Ingalls noted that the study derived from MRLG’s regional and national training programmes on women and men in land governance and was commissioned in part to address a lack of data and information on the overall status of gender equity in land-related policies and practices in the region. As such the study provides a regional ‘stock taking’, framing gender and land in Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, and Vietnam in their conceptual, regional and international contexts, while also providing a review of land-related policy and legal frameworks, including gender-specific provisions. The objective of the report is to offer a forward look to guide policy and action on gender and land, providing recommendations on policy strengthening, customary tenure, ethnic minorities and Indigenous Rights, participatory land governance and capacity strengthening for improved results.

The introduction from Dr. Ingalls was followed by an exploration of the ‘why does it matter’ question – that is, why is it a problem that women are not participating equally in land governance - and specifically in land-related law- and policy-making? One of the panelists, Dr. Sochanny Hak, Senior Researcher at the Analyzing Development Issues Center in Cambodia, highlighted the legal obligation to ensure equitable participation – essentially considering participation in lawmaking as an intrinsic human right. As Dr. Sochanny explained during the session: “It is vitally important that women participate in the land and policy formulation process. This is a legal obligation – according to the Cambodian constitution, women and men have the equal rights to participate in the political, economic, and cultural life of the nation.”

This view was echoed by Dr. Hue Le, a Senior Researcher at Vietnam National University, Hanoi, who further emphasized the link between participation of diverse groups of women in all stages of law- and policy-making processes and the achievement of gender equality outcomes, citing the CEDAW Committee’s General Recommendation No 34 on the rights of rural women, as well as the Committee on World Security’s Voluntary Guidelines on the Responsible Governance of Tenure (VGGTs). She noted that when women participate in land-related law and policy discussions, women “have a voice and thus they can contribute ideas that are more suitable to their aspirations.” In short, the wider the diversity of participants in law-making and policy processes, the more suitable the content of law and policy is to the needs of various groups in society.

In a subsequent intervention, Dr. Sochanny agreed with Dr. Hue, while also expanding upon this concept. She noted that gender equality, in turn, has positive repercussions for society as a whole, indicating “women are the backbone of socio-economic development”, referencing as an example the recent statement by the Cambodian Minister of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, that “gender mainstreaming was necessary for the agriculture sector because this helps to ensure food security.”[1]

From the Lao PDR, Mme. Phouvone Thammavong, Deputy Director of the Investment Promotion Department at the Ministry of Planning and Investment, also raised the significance of women’s participation for good land governance. She highlighted that gender equity and equal capacity to participate in land-related decision making ultimately ensures fairness – in her words “[this] ensures that men and women can participate equally in their relationships to land” creating a more level playing field for women and men and their relationship to land.

Guided by the moderator, the panelists then explored what gender-equitable participation in land governance would look like. Dr. Hue articulated that this means that women need to be both “policy makers” and “subjects of land governance policies.” Thus, a dual approach needs to be applied – women should be involved in the drafting or revision of laws and policies at the national level, while policy makers, both men and women, need to consult effectively with women at all levels on the content of new laws so the law itself reflects these different perspectives, while also themselves understanding the different impacts land and natural resource governance can have on women and men.

Panelists further noted that participation at the national-level is not enough – to avoid elitism, law consultation processes need to operate at both the regional and local level and be structured in a way that effectively encourages women to feel safe and able to participate. The feminist consultation methodology piloted in Vietnam, Lao PDR and Cambodia, and discussed in MRLG’s thematic study on this issue provides some insights as to how such consultations can be structured.

The session then proceeded to touch on the barriers to gender equity. Perhaps unsurprisingly, barriers were similar across the Mekong region, with all participants noting that land is often described as a “men’s issue” in which women are seen to have limited capacity to engage and meaningfully contribute in a room full of (often male) technical experts. In the Lao PDR, Cambodia and Vietnam, the perception that “women’s issues” are limited to gender-based violence, family planning and child nutrition creates a self-perpetuating cycle. Because of this perception, women are rarely trained to articulate their specific concerns around land issues in national policy forums. Yet because of this lack of training and confidence, policy makers’ perception that women don’t have the “technical skills” to contribute to law reform is reinforced, leading to their frequent exclusion from policy making and legal reforms.

By way of example of this phenomenon, Dr. Hue noted that in Vietnam, gender equality institutions, such as the Vietnam Women’s Union, lack authority to deal with land or agricultural issues and are therefore often sidelined when it comes to land policy reform or implementation.

Dr. Sochanny, presenting the results of her research on the consultations around Cambodia’s draft Contract Farming Law (articulated in detail in the MRLG thematic study) revealed similar considerations in Cambodia’s law reform. Her research revealed that none of the women in the two agricultural cooperatives targeted in the study had been invited to consultation meetings on the draft law and related consultations on the conflict resolution guidelines. Further, the Executive Director of one women-oriented NGO stated that her organization had never been invited to discussions on land and natural resources management, despite a strong desire in her organization to provide advocacy and policy contributions in this area. In this context, Mme Phouvone noted the importance of education in breaking stereotypes and allowing women to meaningfully contribute, recalling that there remain limitations of women’s education in rural areas of Lao PDR, with “consequences for women’s roles and participation in land governance at the local level” – and highlighting that language barriers combined with low education and a lack of confidence impede the participation of women from Lao PDR ethnic groups in land policy and governance.

Ms. Mai Thin Yumon, from Myanmar and Co-Chair, Global Indigenous Youth Caucus, provided some unique insights into the tensions of participation and community representation in the context of Indigenous Peoples and ethnic groups in land policy discussions, highlighting that traditional practices or patterns of representation as they concern land issues can often take precedence over the value of equal voice and participation for men and women in land decisions. She highlighted the substantial barriers Indigenous Peoples encounter in engaging with land policy dialogues. She underscored the significant difficulty in achieving meaningful involvement, pointing out the stark gap from the goal of proportional representation. Specifically, the achievement of a minimal 30% female participation remains unmet, illustrating a pattern of only symbolic engagement of women and ongoing tokenism practiced by governments rather than a real openness to hearing their differing perspectives. According to Ms. Yumon, “Women are being invited whose perspectives resonate with the policymakers or who’s views do not represent the voices of women.”

Ms. Yumon also reflected that in a context of state violence and civil conflict, the participation of women in land governance was not always given a high priority, with most action taking place at the community level in association with NGOs.

To wrap up the interventions prior to the Q&A, panelists were asked by the moderator about emerging good practices, positive examples and potential recommendations to ensure meaningful inputs by women at all levels and to move beyond tokenism and numerical representation. MRLG’s Regional Adviser on Customary Tenure and Gender, Ms. Natalie Y. Campbell closed the session by reiterating the high-level recommendations of both publications.  Suggestions from the panelists included the following, which echo the conclusions and recommendations in MRLG’s Outlook on Gender and Land in the Mekong Region:

  • At the national level there is a need for a legal obligation to ensure gender-equitable consultation. There also needs to be an obligation to undertake a gender review of proposed land and natural resources laws using a set of criteria to understand the potential gendered impact of such legal changes. Without this requirement, the law is often gender neutral or gender blind which can lead to disproportionate and problematic impacts on women.
  • More generally across the region, all land policy consultation meetings at sub-national levels need to be designed in such a way that the feedback can actually influence or change policy - rather than constituting top-down information sharing exercises on legal or regulatory changes that have already been decided. This means:

(i)timing these sessions before policy and legal decisions have been made;

(ii)creating a safe space for women to input and be listened to – requiring that regional or local government representatives need to be trained on the ‘how’ of engaging with women. By way of example, the feminist consultative approach piloted in the thematic brief is one potential methodology to support the active and meaningful participation of women at the local level in land discussions; and

(iii)requiring those involved in legal or policy consultations to report and translate inputs and feedback collected at these forums into proposals for specific amendments and changes to draft laws or policies.

  • Expand the mandate and role of national women’s equality institutions such as the Lao Women’s Union or Vietnam Women’s Union or other women specific NGOs, to include land and agricultural issues, as well as participation in business and politics. Equally important is to build the technical capacity and knowledge of these representatives at different levels to facilitate their meaningful engagement. The idea is that the participation of women focused organizations  in land policy discussions will create a virtuous cycle – demonstrating the benefits of women’s participation and normalizing their participation in these kinds of discussions.
  • Support not only technical skills, but also women’s soft skills and confidence to engage in policy and land discussions. Provision of targeted support to help women leaders of farmers’ cooperatives, for example, to gain skills in public speaking and to feel ready to participate in policy forums, while also providing a safe space where they can talk and feel less pressure to provide ‘perfect responses’ is key. Depending on country contexts, there may be a role for NGOs to provide this kind of service, but it may also potentially be a government function. As comprehensively summarised by Mme Phouvone from Lao PDR, “We need to be very comprehensive, inclusive but also focused on women’ opportunities to be trained, heard, practiced, planning and making decisions as per their capacity and strength. This should not focus only on quantity but more on quality of voice they should and could make.”
  • Lastly, as mentioned in the conclusion of the session, which involved a summary of the recommendations made in the strategic report Outlook on Gender and Land in the Mekong Region  by Natalie Campbell, MRLG Customary Tenure and Gender Advisor, and co-author of the report – at all levels, but particularly in rural areas, develop and support the formation of positive social norms around gender and land relations, including by promoting and demonstrating the ongoing positive contributions of women in land management and governance.

Promisingly, some of these ideas are already being translated into concrete actions. For example, in Cambodia, MRLG will support the engagement of women leaders of agricultural cooperative leaders in policy discussions around contract farming, while also providing them with some training on the draft law and its content, providing an opportunity to develop a common policy position. At a regional level MRLG, in partnership with RECOFTC, is also currently developing a regional community of practice for experts on gender and land, with the objective that this group will further support action around some of the common barriers to gender equity seen across the region through information exchanges and capacity building.  

Needless to say, there were many more excellent points made by panelists and participants alike – if time permits, listen to the recording! Any further questions should be directed to MRLG Gender Advisors Renée Chartres: rchartres@landequity.com.au and Natalie Campbell: nataliecampbell.mrlg@gmail.com. In the meantime, stay tuned for the next webinar in the State of Land in the Mekong series!

 

[1] Cited in Socheata Van “Tina: the backbone socioeconomic development” The Phnom Penh Post, March 9, 2023.  

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