Solutions for Change: Changing Gender Narratives in Lao PDR
On October 8th, 2018, Deputy Director of the Department of Forestry (DoF), Boualy Phameuang addressed a room full of eager meeting participants at The Center for People and Forests’ (RECOFTC) inaugural Solutions for Change: Action Talk event at the Department of Forestry conference room in Vientiane, Lao PDR. By an initial glance, one could not easily parse out the common thread that congregated these 41 attendees to this meeting – there appeared to be no overt commonalities between participants, all of whom came from diverse sectors (private sector, Lao CSO, INGO, and government representatives), demographics (14 men, 27 women), and geographies across Lao PDR. Yet, the heterogeneity of the attendees’ makeup and specializations underscore an increasing drive by a diverse set of actors to address an eminent issue that is surfacing to the forefront of current societal discourse in Southeast Asia – attention to gender equity and social inclusion. This national consultation workshop, Promoting Gender Equality in Forestry Sector in Lao PDR, facilitated by Department of Forestry (DoF), Ministry of Agriculture and Forestry (MAF) together with RECOFTC, sought to discuss the current landscape of gender equality and forestry initiatives in Lao PDR, and to identify gaps and opportunities to drive an agenda for social change and gender equality in the sector.
Sisompeth Souvanthilisith, Head of Sub-Commitee for Advancement of Women (Sub-CAW) within MAF, commenced the workshop with a presentation on Setting the Context for Gender and Forestry: Legal Frameworks and Institutional Mechanisms for Gender Equality, to provide a foundational context of gender work in Lao PDR. Souvanthilisith reiterated the significance of Sub-CAW as the body primarily responsible for implementing a gender framework, starting with legal provisions, and informed participants of the 127 projects that have undergone gender mainstreaming efforts under DoF. Despite common misconceptions on the lack of progression of gender work, Souvanthilisith explained that the inception of gender discussions in forestry sector dates back to 1987 and has made large strides in the nation since then, while noting some of the ongoing challenges, including the need to secure budget for gender activities within the sector.
Khamnouy Chanthalasy, Deputy Head, VF/NTFP Management Division, then delivered a presentation on Experiences of Implementing Gender Equality in Agriculture and Forestry. The presentation focused on experiences and lessons learned on gender implementation in the sector. Chanthalasy briefed participants on current initiatives and mechanisms that require commitment from those in deputy positions to hold consultations with women before their appointment tenure. Furthermore, Chanthalasy discussed how women are playing an active role in the legal framework on revising laws on forestry, REDD+, and in development at large. The presentation focused on technical achievements, remarking how women are involved with job descriptions within sub-divisions of departments, and work with their male counterparts to assess forest changes. However, Chanthalasy spoke to some of the under-acknowledged gender efforts which merit discussion; while there are no explicit gender acts in the Forestry Law, gender activities have been mainstreamed to-date, thus, enforcing the need to reconcile the inconsistencies between gender efforts and official documentation.
Shortly after, Dr. Kalpana Giri, Senior Program Officer of RECOFTC presented an original analysis of the Forestry Law and recommendations on ways to make the law more amenable to gender-inclusivity, with participants later engaging in a discussion to propose their desired amendments. Individuals recommended creating a separate gender taskforce on Forestry Law revisions, providing explicit language that allows for more inclusive measures of forestry management, holding institutions accountable for female participation with affirmative provisions such as quotas, and examining demographic context within villages to address specific groups of men and women in the Forestry Law.
The main session of the day featured group discussions to map current gender activities and actors being undertaken, identify gaps and opportunities to integrate gender in the forestry sector, and to develop collaboration mechanisms to maximize synergies for optimal gender equality impact. Participants were disaggregated into three thematic areas - Group 1 laid out the landscape of current actors working towards the integration and mainstreaming of gender equality in the sector, Group 2 examined gaps and priorities, and necessary interventions for gender parity, and Group 3 outlined potential communication channels that would enable successful and sustainable gender work. Participants later convened in a larger discussion and offered feedback on each group presentation to determine the most pertinent issues and priorities for prospective gender work in forestry sector in Lao PDR.
Whether gender efforts in the country have properly reached mainstream attention, it is clear that many of the participants had a mutual understanding of the gender priorities and shortcomings they felt needed to be addressed. Many of them spoke of the necessity to engage women in a proper platform at local to national scales, which would enable them to join discussions on legislative processes, and to conduct a needs-based assessment and research on the areas of the forestry sector currently lacking gender sensitization. By the end of the session, participants had already begun to devise methods on the creation of a technical working group where coordination for gender work in the forestry sector could be streamlined and efficient.
This consultation event is one of many initiatives initiated by RECOFTC as a part of its new strategic goal for the 2018-2023 phase, to ensure that the rights and capacities of women and other marginalized people are enhanced. In creating a collective space for gender champions, institutional awareness on gender is reinforced to support inclusive forestry sector practices. However, as Souvanthilisith noted in her presentation, an institutional framework alone is insufficient to ensure equitable female involvement in the forestry sector. It is imperative that those who preach gender parity must act upon their words through concrete actions, rather than exclusively engaging in abstract discussions on gender rights and equity. In doing so, Souvanthilisith challenges a common paradox between praxis and discourse that is pervasively practiced in the development sector. The synergies and interactions between actors at the workshop contested this existing concern in development – despite common narratives of the infeasibility and reservations for gender work in the forestry sector, the momentum for actionable change and genuine passion for gender equity has the potential to reach its apex when high in numbers and cooperation.