By Mia Signs
Laos, March 8, 2017
The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is “women in the changing world of work,” which aims to right the inequalities that currently exist in the global labor force. This is a worthy cause, but what happens when the change in work comes about due to more major livelihood changes that transform the gender dynamics of work and decision-making in whole communities?
Large-scale development projects are major drivers of landscape and social change in Lao PDR. As the government rolls out its plan to become the “battery of Southeast Asia,” hydropower development projects are ramping up. While the aim of these projects is to bring prosperity to this ASEAN member and its citizens, more and more communities are necessarily being resettled as a result.
Intentions are usually good. Official Lao government policy is to ensure that resettlement and relocation schemes lead to improved lives for those who are resettled. Hydropower companies work closely with government ministries and local authorities to come up with ways in which to rehabilitate communities so that their lives after resettlement will be better than before.
Good intentions, however, may not be enough, and problems can arise with unsuitable livelihood activities and rehabilitation programs that often fail to provide sufficient income and an improved quality of life.
Why is this the case?
One study thinks that part of the problem might be that relocation and resettlement strategies don’t sufficiently consider how gender and ethnicity are related to household decision-making. The study, carried out in Lao PDR as well as Vietnam, assessed a range of material, relational and subjective factors that effect these decisions using a ‘gender lens.’
Based on a case study of a hydropower-affected village in Bolikhamxay Province, the researchers found that gender values, norms and practices have an influence on the way ‘joint’ vs. ‘gendered’ household decisions were made after resettlement. The “bold change” brought about by hydropower development, necessarily impacted by these values, norms and practices, led to more or less effective uptake of livelihood strategies, depending on the gender and ethnicity of the relocated individuals.
Gender and household decision making in a changing world
The resettlement village in the case study was made up of four original villages, with two ethnic groups representing the majority of the households (55% and 37%, respectively). Both prior to and after resettlement, the villagers predominantly engaged in subsistence agriculture, but had some cash flow from upland rice, riverbank gardens, fishing, weaving and off-farm labor.
While both wives and husbands made many household decisions jointly, some of the decisions about specific livelihood activities were gendered. For instance, men were predominant in decisions about upland rice farming and fishing, while women had more influence over decisions about riverbank gardens and weaving.
In the resettlement village, upland rice farming and riverbank gardens were less viable than in the old villages, while weaving and fishing had become more important as generators of revenue.
For one of the ethnic groups, weaving became a feasible alternative livelihood activity for women. This is perhaps because this group was more skilled in weaving and were used to engaging in a wider variety of livelihood activities. As a result, decisions made by women still contributed to the wellbeing of the households in this ethnic group.
However, the women of the other ethnic group did not take up weaving to the same extent. This group had traditionally put a great deal of value on upland farming, and ended up focusing their efforts on this and fishing, even in the new village. As such, women had fewer activities on which to make key decisions, and as male oriented livelihood activities became dominant, the men ended up having more influence on decision-making relating to household livelihoods.
From this example, we can see that the ways that men and women experience relocation and rehabilitation differently can be profound, based on previous gender roles and values. Understanding the subjective differences in attitudes, feelings and aspirations that impinge on decisions for different groups, as well as their social relations, is very important.
Based on their research, the project came up with the following insights on how to make resettlement schemes more equitable and effective:
- It is important to assess the extent to which decisions relating to livelihoods are made jointly or are gendered for different ethnic groups.
- When designing livelihood packages, hydropower companies should focus on subjective and relational wellbeing, as well as material wellbeing to ensure that both men and women benefit.
- The influence of external actors (i.e. social networks) on the decisions of men and women must be factored into planning.
- When evaluating the impact of new, proposed livelihood schemes, it is necessary to gender disaggregate the costs and benefits to women and men, as well as ethnic groups, separately.
Resettlement is not unique to Laos by any means, and hydropower development is just one of many reasons for resettlement to occur. In all cases, considering the values and practices of the resettlement community and how it will affect the work that men and women do is the only way to make sure that both benefit equally from the changing world.
This blog and the technical brief, Gender and ethnic dynamics of household decision making in hydropower-related resettlement, are based on the publication, Gender and household decision-making in a Lao Village: implications for livelihoods in hydropower development.