Charting the Next Course: Women Speak from a Mighty River

By Christine McNab, guest contributor. Can Tho, Viet Nam

She’s petite, yet stands tall and steady, strong shoulders and arms steering eight foot-long oars through a swift Mekong current. It’s dawn, and many women do the same, navigating their low wooden boats through a jigsaw of vessels at the Phong Dien floating market. Women here do a brisk trade in produce, exchanging pounds of watermelon, daikon, pineapple, cabbage, morning glory, onion and squash for Vietnamese Dong. The bounty from the Mekong Delta provides much of the food energy for Vietnam’s 90 million people. Women are at the heart of this essential commerce.

“Vietnamese women are often in charge of driving the small boats, and buying and selling at the fruit and vegetable markets,” says Maru, my guide. The work is taxing – a technique combining crossed arms and oars to nudge the boat through narrow spots; a one-legged start of a long motorized rotor for speed, and hours under a searing sun. Our driver, Tay, has been steering boats for more than twenty years. “Women here work very hard,” Maru tells me.

I want to find out a lot more about Tay and Maru, and I will this week as part of my new multimedia project, A River Runs with Her: the Lives of Women and Girls on the Mekong.

Near Can Tho, Viet Nam, March 2016. Photo: Christine McNab

Tay has done the hard work of steering boats on rivers and tributaries of the Mekong Delta for more than 20 years. (Near Can Tho, Viet Nam, March 2016. Photo: Christine McNab)

I’m devoting 2016 to this self-funded project for many reasons. For one, I believe attaining gender equality is at the heart of international development. Many studies, history, and a lot of common sense tell us that we can only make progress when women have the same rights, access to education, health, jobs and justice as men. Women have made great strides in much of the world, but in too many places, women and girls are simply valued less. Equality means equal value, and it also means equal voice.

We don’t hear from women enough. The Economist recently published an excellent essay on the importance of the Mekong River to biodiversity, culture, and Asia’s economy. I admired the reporting, but noticed there wasn’t a single female voice in the piece. Instead, women were in the kitchen making soup or in bars serving beer. I want to hear more from these women.

The newest international Global Goals for Sustainable Development, set by international leaders last September, include important targets for women’s equality, for education, health and participation in governance. The goals are hopeful and ambitious. I wondered what women living in communities along the Mekong think about these goals? What do they need to achieve them?

And then, there’s the mighty Mekong itself, a legendary, 2700-mile artery connecting six countries, many cultures and one of the most bio-diverse areas of the world. Its waters are a lifeblood for millions. As the climate changes, the Mekong, and the traditions and economic lives of millions are changing with it.

Tay doesn’t speak much as she drives her boat down a Mekong Delta tributary. But I want to know what she thinks about all of this. I think it’s her time, and time for all women, to tell the world what they think.

Learn more about A River Runs with Her project in this 1-minute video.

To follow the project, see www.ChristineMcNab.com, add http://www.christinemcnab.com/her-stories/ to your RSS feed, or follow along on Facebook.
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Christine McNab is a global public health worker and communications expert. Her TEDMED talk illuminates the story of how she combined her passions and partnered with the Gates Foundation to create what might be the most artistically crafted vaccine promotion campaign ever.