By Mayumi Sato, RECOFTC - The Center for People and Forests
Gender norms are conditioned, but not impervious to change. This was a shared view echoed by a panel of four gender specialists at the Land Governance and Gender Plenary Session of the 2nd Mekong Regional Land Forum. Moderated by Kalpana Giri of RECOFTC – The Center for People and Forests, the panel featured Hilary Faxon (Land Core Group), Clara Park (Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations), Sharanya Nayak (RITES Forum India), and Chansouk Insouvanh (Senior Safeguard Specialist) whose discussion focused on the nexus between land governance and gender equality.
As the first panelist, Faxon drew upon a participatory photography project and household survey conducted in rural communities across Myanmar to understand women’s life on the land. Displaying results of her visual ethnographies, she explained how we must acknowledge the effects that diverse customary systems, complex state policies, and particular livelihood schemes have on the mobility and rights of women. Without understanding these intricate relationships, sound land governance will be futile.
Park then expanded upon Faxon’s commentary by focusing on customary laws. Presenting her work entitled Women, Land and Kinship, Park outlined the conditions that change a women’s access to assets and land under customary laws. In discussing impacts and changes of tenure systems on gender in Cambodia, Park concluded that the restructuring and renegotiations of customary rights pose risks for women, who are vulnerable to land loss and alienation. To mitigate social and gendered inequality within customized systems, she emphasized that women should actively participate in land groups to ensure equitable participation and decisions around land governance.
Active participation in land governance, however, is often suppressed due to internal and external pressures, as shown by Nayak in her presentation. Contributing to the panel from a grassroots perspective, Nayak spoke from her 20 years of community work with indigenous women and forestry communities in India. She defined forceful land grabbing by corporations, deep-rooted patriarchy in tribal communities, and the increasing impacts of climate change as three prime barriers with gendered outcomes that deny equal land and dignity for indigenous women.
It is for this reason that Insouvanh spoke about the role of safeguards in enabling women to become agents of change. As a Senior Safeguard Specialist in Laos, she explained how safeguards work to assist gender-specific needs. By informing women of their legal rights to share land titles under their names, Insouvanh stressed how interventions can produce tangible results in women’s understanding of their legal rights and participation.
It was clear while listening to the various case studies that to challenge gender issues through a uniform approach would undermine the distinct local dynamics that limit equitable participation in land governance. In concluding remarks, the panel expressed that we must understand the tangled context that produces gender inequalities and the power hierarchies that enable them to persist. Women’s participation is frequently stifled due to lack of opportunity and knowledge of their land rights. Expectations surrounding divisions of labour and responsibility are heavily steeped in sociocultural norms and must be challenged by increasing women’s participation and knowledge in decision-making processes. In so doing, there is a higher likelihood of obtaining stronger representation and equitable land rights.
Fortunately, discussions on gender parity in land governance have been gaining traction in recent years; however, the developmental sector must refocus the lens to include the dynamic interplay of particular geographical and cultural influences. Increasing the autonomy and equity of women’s use and access to land is not a singular or universal act. Stakeholders at all scales, including men and women from the local to global level, are integral in supporting women’s participation and consequently securing successful land governance.