Women protect the river
Hong Rany’s first patrol to look for illegal fishers on the Mekong River at night in a narrow, tippy boat was tough: It was dark, it was about to rain, and she and the fishery patrol team passed some islands where people say spirits live, so it was spooky. “It was cold, and I was scared,” she admits more than a year later. “There’s potential for dangerous conditions in bad weather, and if you meet any illegal fishermen there may be a confrontation.” But she also says when they cut the engine and drift in the current, “I can hear the sound of fish splashing around the boat, and it’s beautiful.”
For Rany, the nighttime river patrol is routine now. But it was once unusual for a woman to participate. “I had to prove I could do it,” she says, standing high above the bank of the Mekong, looking west into the afternoon sun.
Rany, 26, lives in a small village on the Mekong River called Ksach Leav. People here derive much of their food and income from fish in the river and are concerned about a declining fish population. Oxfam’s partner Northeast Rural Development (NRD) helped Ksach Leav and about six other villages establish a registered Community Fishery: a section of the river reserved for their use, where they are responsible for enforcing regulations that protect fish spawning areas, restrict net sizes, and prohibit use of explosives and electrocution.
Each Community Fishery has a committee that teaches fishing families about the regulations, raises awareness of important ways to conserve the fishery, and organizes patrols to enforce the regulations. It has an elected leader, and in early 2018 the people in Ksach Leav elected Hong Rany.
“Some people did not want me to be the leader of the Community Fishery committee, including the village chief,” Rany says, at the home she shares with her parents on Chrem Island, about 30 minutes by boat from the main part of Ksach Leav. “He was not happy to see me elected.”
She says the chief and other government officials spoke out against her. “I heard they said ‘we wonder why the community elected her; she’s young and inexperienced. How can she organize the patrolling? She’s a girl, she can’t patrol at night.’ I felt discouraged when I heard those words.”
The chief and others complained to NRD’s Executive Director Sam Sovann, so he came to meet with Rany.
“He came to the village and I met him at the pagoda,” Rany explained. “He said, ‘you have to do this, you have to prove to them that yes, you are a young woman, but you can do everything.’ He helped me get training in gender and women’s leadership, youth leadership, and advocacy. It helped me be more confident when talking with leaders in the community.”
Rany set about re-unifying the fishery committee, as some members had resigned in protest when she was elected. “I had to clarify the structure of the committee and our plans,” she says. “I would say 80 percent of these issues have been resolved, and we are functioning well.”
More training with NRD helped her learn to raise money. “We raised $2,500 to buy equipment, build a shelter for the team, and raise awareness of the fishery laws,” she says.
Son Sovann, a program coordinator from NRD, says those who were once critical of Rany “appreciate her more now, now they support her.”
In the meantime, Rany leads the night patrol. “When it rains at night it can be difficult, but we have raincoats, and we stay out on the river and talk with the fishermen,” she says. “It’s a tough job but in the end I like it. That’s why I want to do it.”