On 23rd June, Friedrich Ebert Stiftung- FES Thailand together with the Asian Institute of Technology and Mahidol University organized a panel on Gender, Insecurity and Social Protection: Evidence from Five Mekong Countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar, Viet Nam and Thailand) in the 2017 International Conference on International Relations and Development at Thammasat University, Thailand.
The panel presented some of the findings of (i) a recent study on “Empowerment and Security for Low-Income Women in Four Mekong Countries (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Viet Nam),” together with (ii) a study of the “Women’s Movement in Thailand” that has been promoting gender and social justice for decades. The seminar was introduced and moderated by Dr. Philippe Doneys, Gender and Development Studies (GDS), Asian Institute of Technology (AIT). The presenters were Ms. Kanokphan Jongjarb (AIT), Dr. Marc Voelker (Institute for Population and Social Research, Mahidol University), Ms.Norm Sina (AIT), Dr. Phuong Pham (Asian Development Bank), Dr. Duanghathai Buranajaroenkij (Institute of Human Rights and Peace Studies, Mahidol University) and Dr. Donna L. Doane (AIT).
Ms. Kanokphan opened the panel with an overview on social protection policies in the four Mekong countries (Cambodia, Lao PDR, Myanmar and Viet Nam) including positive effects and shortfalls from the existing social protection programs. The interviews from the research project suggest that what appears on policy paper is not always implemented well, so the services may not be available to the target group, as stated. While, all the countries make serious efforts to expand formal social protection coverage, she emphasized that there are problems associated with sustainability, particularly in cases of local, NGO and internationally-sponsored programs.
Following Ms. Kanokphan’s presentation, Dr. Marc showed the analysis from the quantitative data, which focused on some of the problems facing women in the low-income bracket and the main institutions they can rely on (both formal and informal including; friends, neighbours, family, local CBOS, etc.) in the four Mekong countries. Statistically, all the respondents from the four countries perceived health problems as the biggest risk factor and were most troubled by this. However, it was also stated that if they run into serious difficulties among informal and formal sectors, they are able to obtain support from family structures.
Ms. Sina highlighted a case study from Siem Reap, Cambodia which illustrated how women from income generation groups learned to collectively negotiate with local authorities so as to acquire education, health and other social protections. The women’s groups were able to convince a provincial hospital to gain access to health care by enforcing the implementation of the health equity fund program (implementation problems in Cambodia). The groups worked with the education department in order to allow the children from the women’s group to study without paying informal fees (the informal fees are too expensive for poor families). However, there are a number of sustainability-related problems, for example, there is a lack of demand, lack of continued support for the group and the group’s leaders benefitting more than the members.
The next case was from Viet Nam by Dr. Phuong with lessons learnt from income generation projects for low-income women in Ninh Binh province and the roles of Ninh Binh Women’s Union in improving social security and empowering low-income women. Since 2011, Women Development Fund, initiated by Ninh Binh Provincial People’s Committee and implemented by Ninh Binh Women’s Union has played a crucial role in improving social security (social protection) for impoverished and vulnerable women. Positively, it contributed to women’s empowerment through increased recognition from husbands and the community of women’s economic contribution. Women felt more confident due to their increased income levels, improved technical skills, increased understanding and knowledge, and increased participation in public activities. Again, sustainability was not always ensured due to the lack of funding and support from local institutions. Incidents of family conflict including domestic violence which were reported illustrated the negative effects of women’s participation in the project.
Dr. Duanghathai presented a case study from Thailand on women’s participation in social movements and women’s contribution to developing the social agenda. Women’s groups and feminist movements have built up their assets for decades, contributing to women’s advancement in Thai society. Recently large numbers of women, from all walks of life especially the grassroots level, have been enthusiastically engaging in political activism to defend their ways of life, protect the environment through sustainable development, and achieve peace. A challenge we face is how to politicize issues and demands of women from different groups in order to redress gender relations and social relations which would essentially promote gender justice parallel to social justice. Dr. Duanghathai echoed that gender diversity perspectives are needed for making policies which seriously and intensively respond to the specific needs of diverse social groups.
The final presentation of the panel was given by Dr. Donna on implications for social protection policies in the Mekong sub-region. Firstly, she addressed numerous challenges involving ‘sustainability’ issues and emphasized that social support is essential in the creation of a stable, supportive environment which effectively promotes women’s economic empowerment. It appears that institutional support (through the promotion of gender training, as well as knowledge and skills transfers, and other efforts) can help improve the husband’s (and society’s) support for women’s involvement in these types of projects. She critiqued the fragmented coordination between different agencies (GOs, NGOs, CBOs etc.) that act as barriers to sustainability, and suggested that an integrated approach (relevant ministries/organizations working together) and a “multi-layered” approach are needed to strengthen institutions “at the bottom”.
Following the presentations, Dr. Philippe then led a question and answer session. The questions addressed topics including; backgrounds of existing social protection policies/programs in the four countries, roles of Vietnam Women’s Union and international roles in shaping the direction of social protection policies like SDGs. The speakers responded to questions, sharing their knowledge and experiences from the five countries. Dr. Phlippe drew the session to a close by thanking the audience and speakers.
This blog post is published as part of the Ambassador Series, which presents insights into social protection around the world from the viewpoint of our Ambassadors, a group of international online United Nations Volunteers who support the online knowledge exchange activities, networking and promotion of socialprotection.org.
Photo credit: ESP Mekong Facebook