Exploring Gender Inequality in the Lower-Mekong Region – Creating a Sub-National Gender Inequality Index

How do you link gender inequality and disaster risk management? Climate change and social vulnerability? Where do you start? Those are the questions that have been needling at me for the past few months. As part of the gender cluster this summer at SEI, I have been tasked with investigating how we can use GIS tools to better understand the relationships between climate change and gender inequalities in the Mekong region. The journey to understanding the complexity of this problem has taken me to Cambodia and Vietnam, and down many rabbit holes of the internet in search of peer-reviewed literature and archived datasets.

Initially, the breadth and interconnectedness of the social causes of vulnerability were overwhelming. Every avenue that I explored lead to the realization that it is misleading to assess the impact of any one aspect of social vulnerability in isolation. For example, I began my research by investigating the impacts of extreme flooding events on school dropout rates of women and girls in Cambodia. I discovered that flooding had a high impact on dropout rates of women and girls in affected areas, but through further study it became clear that this was not the whole picture. In reality, while flooding certainly exacerbates dropout rates, it is only a possible final step in the long and difficult road that women and girls in these regions face in pursuing an education. As I dove more deeply into my research, I found the real causes were a myriad of social constructs surrounding traditional gendered attitudes towards women in the region. In rural areas, for example, very little importance is placed on female education because women are expected to take on the burden of domestic work around the home. This is especially prevalent among low-income families who will prioritize the education of sons over daughters, who can be kept home to assist with domestic chores. Other factors that contribute to the low levels of education of women in Cambodia include low parental literacy levels and lack of physical access to schools. As such, we can begin to see that when flooding events occur, the attitudes and social obstacles that women and girls face make it that much harder for them to maintain their education.

Furthermore, this web of attitudes and ideas continues to haunt females later in life because the impact of the lack of education can greatly inhibit women’s understanding of their rights to equality and protection under the law. This can make them vulnerable to repeated cycles of domestic violence and abuse. It can also make it very hard for rural women to break out of the poverty cycle by finding off-farm employment in non-exploitative trades. It can also impact an individual’s own perception of education and these attitudes may be passed on to the next generation, continuing the cycle of devaluing education for women and keeping them in positions that do not allow them to be any more influential or economically productive than the preceding generation.

This is not only the case with education but these same cycles of inequality can be identified through various social institutions such as health, income, access to resources, representation in political roles, etc. All of these indicators are often viewed as singular topics but they are undeniably interrelated and must be examined within a framework of vulnerability. The concept of social vulnerability as a collective measure of several indices is not new. The Gender Inequality Index (GII) created by the UNDP in 2010 is an index for measurement of the gender disparity in the areas of reproductive health, empowerment and labor market participation. Although the GII can give us a better understanding of gender inequality across and within nations, it does not explain the variation in inequality that exists at a sub-national or sub-regional level. As such it is of limited use in understanding where women are most vulnerable and cannot be used to target specific resources to alleviate the root causes of inequality. It is because of this gap in regional specificity that the end of my time at SEI has culminated in the proposal to create a provincial-level gender inequality index for Cambodia and Vietnam. The development of such a tool will be created in collaboration with two regional technical groups on gender and GIS – SERVIR-Mekong and SEI – alongside regional women’s organizations in the respective countries, such as the National Women’s Machinaries and the Ministry of Women’s Affairs (MoWA) in Cambodia, and the Vietnam Women’s Union (VWU) in Vietnam. Development of a regionally specific gender-inequality index can be used as a complementary tool in the analysis of gender gaps and vulnerabilities in a region. For instance, the index could be used in tandem with climate change forecasting data, such as drought or flood, in order to assess the gendered dimensions of climate change risk.  Additionally, the publication of the index has the potential to draw attention to gender inequalities that exist across social institutions and can be used as a catalyst for action. Lastly, the hope is that this index will put pressure on agencies to collect more gender disaggregated data and with greater frequency.


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