How to apply a “gender lens” in water research

How can gender issues be effectively integrated in water research projects of SUMERNET? This piece shares experiences and concerns from project leads, mentors, advisors, and young researchers from SUMERNET

By Phan Thanh , Le Thi Van Hue
Jan 13, 2022

Researchers are seeking to integrate gender equality into the research design, implementation, and analysis in their research projects on water insecurity in the Mekong Region. How can they do so effectively while bearing in mind social, cultural, and political contexts in the countries in the region?

At a recent online webinar on integrating gender in research, Dr. Le Thi Van Hue, SUMERNET advisor on Gender Equality, presented a step by step method to integrate gender in a water research project:

  • Identify identities and conditions shaping barriers to access to and control over water
  • Construct research questions
  • Outline the research process.
  • Avoid bias
  • Conduct focus group discussion.
  • Write up the findings

According to Dr. Le Thi Van Hue, some important aspects that need to be highlighted include economic status, physical ability, sexuality, culture, age, gender, and ethnicity. These act as the barriers for women and marginalized groups to access and control water resources. Some of our project teams have also engaged with the young, elderly, women, and disadvantaged groups in their projects to analyze how their roles, responsibilities, practices, and social norms have affected the ways in which they use and manage water resources.

Designing the research to reflect gender questions

A key step is to design the research questions to better unpack gender and social relations that comprise norms and values, division of labor, access to and control over water resources, participation in decision making process, and the dominant types of knowledge.

The method of outlining the research process includes research design, data collection and analysis. However, many activities have been delayed due to the Covid-19 pandemic in the Mekong Region including political unrest in some specific areas.

Ms. Nang Shining from the project, Bridging local knowledge with scientific understanding: co-creating a Mekong curriculum, said that “Co-producing the knowledge means to engage local people as the owner of the project even after the project comes to an end. The long-term aim is to empower local people, especially the poor and marginalized groups and female household heads in the communities to play roles in water decision making process in their respective areas.”

Dr. Hue agreed, stating that the power relations among different social groups shape the decision making in water resource management. It is important to empower the more vulnerable and marginalized groups who are the least powerful in access to and control over water resources for their livelihoods.

How to avoid bias and identify powerful groups

Project teams need to think about sampling ahead of time. Professor Nguyen Thi Kim Oanh, lead for the project Atmospheric deposition to large river basins and potential effects on the water environment (DEPOSITION) shared her experiences with using random sampling technique in her research. However, Dr. Hue voiced some concerns about missing the female-headed household representatives in the sample.

Therefore, project teams to be keep in mind gender sensitivity throughout the process of research design, data collection and analysis to make sure that the female household heads and marginalized groups are included in the samples. If those are missing in the research design, we need to meet with village heads and share some ideas with them before conducting surveys so that the survey will represent all groups and households in the community. Village heads are described as the gate keepers who know about all the groups of households in their villages, including marginalized groups as well as how they access to water resources.

Moreover, we also need to identify what groups have more power and what groups have less, who is dominant and who is intimidated to make sure all voices are heard. This is important for conducting focus group discussions to make sure that everyone has an equal chance to participate in the survey.

For example, in the Mekong Region, men are more likely to be invited to meetings and trainings as a usual practice in a patriarchal society where men are more respected than women. This is also reflected in the research project Bringing more than food to the table: precipitating meaningful change in gender and social equity-focused participation in transboundary Mekong Delta wetlands management. A team member of this project, Dr. Thai Huynh Phuong Lan stated that, “While men feel that they have the right to speak in the public, women are intimidated and do not have a chance to speak up. As researchers, we are not always in a position to create interview conditions where those who feel intimidated are free to speak.  But sometimes we can control these conditions. This is why (for example), women are interviewed separately from men, and ethnic minorities will be interviewed separately from people of dominant ethnic origin”.

Gender integration is not just about bringing women into the policy-making process

In the Mekong Region, the system of patriarchy is reflected in the fact that most of policymakers are older men and solve problems through a male-oriented perspective. We need to invite male policymakers to research and policy dialogues to introduce issues of gender integration. Some of the SUMERNET projects have successfully engaged their boundary partners and policymakers using meetings and workshops, providing them with skills in gender sensitivity during data collection and in policy-making process.


This piece is based on the SUMERNET 4 All Gender Reflection Workshop held online by SUMERNET Secretariat on 18th November 2021.

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