By Hnin Wut Yee, MK31 Fellow
What are the existing conditions of ethnic rural women in two villages in the downstream area of the proposed Mong Ton Dam project in relation to men in their day-to-day life? How do women control and get access to resources at home, in the community and the country? What would be the implications for them if the large-scale dam is built?
Community Life in Rural Myanmar
In the ethnic rural setting in Southern Shan State, both women and men in communities rely on the Salween River and its tributaries and sub-tributaries, forests, rotational farmland, and alluvial land on the riverbank. Two villages, Wan Hsala and Kone Kyine are situated 19 kilometers and 32 kilometres from the proposed site, respectively. Apart from slight differences, women’s livelihood strategies in both villages are similar.
Location of Wan Hsala village and Kone Kyine village in relation to the proposed Mong Ton Dam project (Source: Google Maps)
In their part of the world, while men take care of activities that need physical strength like clearing land for upland rotational cultivation and ploughing on the farm, women mostly work on the farm and upland cultivation areas by sowing seeds and growing plants. In addition, they work on home gardening growing vegetables for both domestic consumption and selling in the neighboring villages and towns. Women also find valuable forest products such as herbal medicinal plants, fruits and vegetables in the forest, while men go deeper into the forest to collect resin and orchids that they can sell with a good price.
Women feel that they work harder than men since they are involved in outdoor activities such as working on the farm, going to the forest, and home gardening, and also indoor activities such as taking care of children and household tasks such as cooking, cleaning and washing. Women in Wan Hsala Village also work on alluvial land on the bank of the Salween River seasonally together with male household members, usually to catch edible insects like Hemiptera and Cocopache, a source of protein for domestic consumption and for sale.
While both men and women get access to resources like land, mostly men have control over land in both cases. In most cases, women rarely raise their voice or make decisions in community affairs. For example, in water distribution management and allocation in Kone Kyine Village farmers form a committee to solve water problems in which all members are male.
In both villages, women feel less confident in their ability to act well in public given their little or limited exposure to education, general knowledge and the outside world. They said that they are not involved in making decisions in the public arena because they dare not take responsibility for their decisions, but they take the leading role in preparing and cooking for seasonal and traditional ceremonies either at the monasteries or along the Salween River.
Both men and women feel that their community life is in unity and harmony. However, they feel threatened by the proposed large dam project in their upstream area. They learn about potential impacts of large dam from local grassroots organizations and NGOs. The latter share lessons from global experience and national experience on how large dams have negatively affected local communities in both upstream and downstream areas. 
If the project were built, the trouble and suffering of upstream communities who have to resettle involuntarily would be quite immense due to the lack of a good governance system, corruption, and a lack of community participation in matters that affect their lives. Meanwhile, from time to time impacts on downstream communities tend to be forgotten. They are not resettled or moved out, but they are displaced in another form of disruption of their livelihood strategies due to changes in the water course. This includes disruption in fishing, riverbank cultivation, farming, access to forest land, access to clean and adequate water, and impacts on their social, traditional, cultural and kinship structure.
Can the tangibles and intangibles that the community has lost be priced or monetized? Why do they have to bear such environmental and social costs for what and whom? Who will be held accountable for them? How can we prevent such kind of unequitable resource distribution?
In most cases, women are the ones who have to bear such costs the most due to power imbalances, and the influence of powerful business interests operating with a governance system that is often weak. In a moral and ethical sense, is a game fair when the weak and powerless lose as the strong and powerful benefit within the context of unfair competition?
For me, the solution is to protect and respect those women’s human rights by adhering to the State’s international commitments and national legal obligations both by the State and the businesses involved. Twelve priority areas of the National Strategic Plan for the Advancement of Women (2013–2022) focus on women’s empowerment, gender equality, non-discrimination, protecting women’s human rights, women’s equal participation in decision making and leadership at all levels of society, strengthening institutional mechanisms for advancement and equal participation of women.
To bring social justice and sustainable development for those women, it is time for the government to adopt measures for all relevant stakeholders including women themselves to be involved in the process of energy development. We can make decisions on energy choices that will not destroy the life of affected communities and the environment, but bring benefits for the intended beneficiaries including rural ethnic women.