Though Yangonites fretted at the water shortages over the last week, for many in Myanmar – and particularly women – access to water is a daily struggle.
Capturing the lives of Shan and Kayah women whose domestic work and craft-making relies heavily on the country’s rivers and lakes, UK photographer Tessa Bunney spent last November compiling a series called ‘Water and Women,’ now on view at River Gallery through March 13.
Funded by the International Finance Corporation and the Australian Embassy, the exhibit features both aerial and landscape photographs that explore the relationship between women, water and developments in government sponsored hydropower projects.
As many people migrate from larger towns into settlements such as Loikaw in Shan state, the exhibit shows, access to natural resources begin to shift.
According to Jean D’Cunha, the Head of UN Women in Myanmar, “Women use water with domestic purposes as well as for productive enterprises. Women contribute very significantly to the collection of water for their livelihood purposes and own security.”
For example, as some of the landscape photos around Inle Lake show, women’s livelihoods very much depend on access to waterways.
Traditional weavers use threads of lotus root which is indigenous to the river basins, while women in marketplaces sell and prepare river fish as an essential part of the local people’s diet.
Communities lining river banks with limited access to electricity, also rely on shared water sources for drinking, bathing and irrigation.
In addition to shedding light on the connection between women’s work and water, the exhibition also seeks to spark conversations on how women’s lives can change for the better through development projects.
The March 13 opening will begin with a panel discussion by Oxfam Myanmar, UN Women, Water Mothers and the Australian Embassy to bring women’s issues and environmental concerns to light.
Senior operation officer of the IFC, Kate Lazarus, noted that while women leaders have come far – being courageously outspoken and politically engaged in male dominated sectors – there is still much work to be done to realise full equality.
“Achieving gender equity beyond a headcount at the workplace will support more women to become innovators and leaders in all sectors,” she said. “We hope this will mean taking environmental and social sustainability seriously.”
Researchers at Oxfam Myanmar and the Gender and Development Institute noted that regarding gender equality and water management, women and men in Myanmar still differ greatly in their opinions on how to manage resources.
Cho Zin Thet, the Economic Justice Policy Officer of Oxfam Myanmar, found in field research in Kayin, Kayah, Shan and Mon state that women’s voices are still absent from the debate.
“We conducted projects and various meetings in villages where only men attended. Women never participated in the decision making sessions and didn’t have the chance to hear the difficult stories of women,” she said. “So, sometimes, the final decision ends up having a negative impact on women because they didn’t consider the women’s side.”
Cho Zin Thet urged women of all backgrounds to take an active role in decision making.
She noted government dam projects, which relocates water access away from villages, as ones that can disproportionately create problems for women.
“For women who normally draw water from rivers, the location [of the dams] will be further away and will cause more worries for women’s security. Only people who actually do this are aware of the possible difficulties. In meetings, however, mostly men made decisions and didn’t consider women,” she explained.
Her final message for women is to become educated about their rights.
“These situations arise because they [women] don’t think that they have any rights,” she said. “Men aren’t the only ones that have a right to lead. Women are important for decision making on every level including access to water.”
The ‘Women and Water’ exhibit will be on view at the River Gallery through March 13 and at Novotel through March 30.