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8 Dec 2022

Yin YU and Shawn SHIEH

Why Gender Should Matter in the Belt and Road Initiative

Yin YU and Shawn SHIEH

In an effort to improve the Belt and Road Initiative’s (BRI) international image, Chinese leaders have been actively promoting the idea of a green, clean, high-quality BRI in speeches and ministerial guidelines. These high-level gestures are welcome, but they focus too narrowly on environmental protection and leave out other important issues such as sensitivity to gender impacts. As one major report on gender and BRI notes: ‘Although China has shown its general commitment to promoting gender equality worldwide, there is no specific policy or serious discussion on adopting such policy for the BRI’.

As a leading global development actor, China should be adopting a comprehensive approach to sustainable, inclusive development & infrastructure projects that value women and other vulnerable groups, as well as the environment.

Why is mainstreaming gender sensitivity important for infrastructure?

Gender sensitivity is critical for BRI projects, many of which are large-scale infrastructure, mining, and energy endeavours with a long operational life. If BRI projects do not consider gender impacts throughout the project life cycle, they can reinforce gender inequalities for decades, wasting limited financial resources and putting lives at risk.

For instance, the construction of large hydropower dams along the Mekong, many built by Chinese companies, has not only had negative impacts on the local ecology but also disrupted the livelihoods of men and women in the lower Mekong region in very different ways. Women depend on the river to harvest smaller fish, shrimp, and seaweed, grow vegetables, wash, cook and bathe. The building of dams along the river led to unpredictable water levels which made it difficult for women to carry out these tasks. Moreover, with men leaving for the cities to work, women’s responsibilities as family caretakers grew as they were left to deal with housework and childcare, forcing some into subsistence poverty.

There are a number of areas where gender sensitivity should and can be mainstreamed in infrastructure projects. In Nepal, the government’s Investment Board (IBN) found that in the case of relocation and compensation, men tended to focus on the amount of compensation while women were more likely to consider the location and quality of the land where they were being resettled, whether they had access to public services such as schools and hospitals, and how to prevent compensation from being misused by the male head of the household. In other words, including both men and women in the consultation process allowed for more sustainable outcomes and reduced potential conflicts that could arise in the community. Based on these findings, the government decided to include women in the consultation process for land resettlement and compensation, required that compensation be deposited in the joint bank account of the husband and wife, and provided financial skills training to men and women.

China could assume a leadership role within the Global South on gender not only by exporting its own ‘valuable experience in achieving economic prosperity through women’s empowerment’ but also by ‘ensuring that Chinese state-owned enterprises and private-sector companies engaging in South-South cooperation adopt a “gender lens” when investing overseas.’

If China was to take the lead on gender equality, it would advance the kind of ‘win-win’, mutually beneficial outcomes that President Xi and other Chinese leaders often talk about with regard to the BRI.

What needs to be done to mainstream gender sensitivity in the BRI infrastructure investment

There is no shortage of available tools and guidelines on mainstreaming gender sensitivity at the policymaking, project and enterprise levels.

The United Nations’ Gender dimensions of the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is an excellent toolkit for decision making at the governance level for agencies responsible for BRI policy, such as the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM)

At the project level, conducting a gender analysis is crucial at the project planning and design stage. Based on the gender analysis, the project planning team can develop a Gender Action Plan (GAP) which should include sex-disaggregated targets, responsible actors, a gender-responsive budget and indicators to measure progress and outcomes.

Enterprises should also consider carrying out the following gender-responsive policies and processes.

  1. Mainstream gender equality within the company.
  2. Promote workforce diversity, create new employment opportunities for local women and create a safe work environment for them.
  3. Carry out skills training for local staff, especially female staff.
  4. In the procurement process, support women-owned businesses or require bidding companies have gender-sensitive policies.
  5. If the project will create adverse impacts to the local communities, ensure the Gender Action Plan provides gender-sensitive resettlement, livelihood restoration and other compensation measures.
  6. Collaborate with and support local community-based women’s organizations.

Chinese leaders now need to take the next step by acknowledging that gender does matter, and is in fact crucial, to realizing a sustainable and inclusive BRI and President Xi’s vision of building a “community of common destiny for mankind.” Or perhaps we should say a “community of common destiny for humanity.”

Yin YU is an independent consultant working on building capacity for civil society in China, Mekong regional sustainable development, climate policy on energy, women’s rights, and social and environmental footprints of Chinese overseas investment.

Shawn SHIEH is the founder of Social Innovations Advisory, Ltd. (SIA) with 15 years of experience working to strengthen civil society and social movements in China and the Asia-Pacific.