Interview with Elena Gordillo Fuertes about the intersection between Resource Governance and Human Rights.

Elena Gordillo Fuertes is a UNICEF Junior Consultant and a master’s student at the University of British Columbia in Canada in Public Policy and Global Affairs, as well as an Oxford University graduate with a BA in Geography. She works on environmental policy research, gender situation analysis, and gender and sustainable development. She recently won the prestigious Jamaloddin Khanjani Family Scholarship for her work on the intersection between human rights and environmental governance. I spoke to her about her recent projects in Mongolia and the Dominican Republic, and what we can learn about intersections between resources and human rights.

What do you do as a Junior Consultant at UNICEF?

I realised soon after graduation that my interest lies at the intersection between resource governance – where do we exploit resources, who exploit them – and human rights – what communities are affected by that. So, I went into my master’s degree with that in mind and I chose my programme because I had the option of a practical eight-month internship instead of a dissertation. For this, I chose UNICEF, me and the others on the team were in the Dominican Republic doing work with them until last week. UNICEF was looking for a group of people to do the most updated version of their gender situation analysis. This is a worldwide UNICEF requirement, they place a lot of emphasis on SDG5 and the rights of girls boys, and adolescents. They needed a group of people to talk to feminist leaders, and administrators of organizations to collect the most up-to-date data and write up the report, which we are doing at the moment, and which will hopefully be published next year. It was super interesting because, before that, I wrote an article on gender and water, again looking at the intersection between human rights, with the gender aspect of it, and resources.

The Dominican Republic is incredibly patriarchal and incredibly sexist. The word that they use there is ‘machista’. We experienced it in the form of harassment everywhere. There are extreme levels of teenage pregnancy, violence against women, and disproportionate levels of inequality in the workforce. To get funding, especially in regions like Latin America and South America, UNICEF needs robust evidence on particular issues that people there are facing. Even though it’s a middle to high-income country, the deep-rooted societal norms create bad issues, in particular for girls. They wanted this report to justify and set the programming for the next five years of their work and see if they could get the funding for advanced work in this area.

We also spoke to some really important feminist leaders in the country. Not many people know this, but the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on the 25th of November stemmed from activists in the Dominican Republic. So, there is a very long history of activism and feminism there, it’s just not doing as much as it could do for changing the country’s views as a whole.

Everyone needs water, everyone is affected by gender structures, so the things you have found out in the Dominican Republic will also be useful in reflecting on other countries and their public policy. How have you used your insights from research in one country for other countries?

It’s the same story all over again. I have done a lot of work on Mongolia and Central Asia as my passion project for the year, and then this more formal work in the Dominican Republic. In Mongolia, I was looking at resources, especially water, and there are so many recurring themes that you could study anywhere in the world. Institutional fragmentation, lack of information, lack of data dissemination, lack of awareness. In the Dominican Republic, interestingly, gender was seen as a taboo. The topics are cross-cutting and overlapping, it’s just a matter of understanding how the topics apply to particular contexts.

So, in the Dominican Republic, I thought, wow, this is so conservative. It is the most hypersexual society that I have ever been in sex, with people showing their bodies, talking about sex, insinuating having sex with people, harassment, and catcalling. But at the same time, there is an incredibly conservative and religious context, which means that sexual education is not talked about in school at all. It is vetoed by the church, which has incredible lobbying power. So, on the one hand, there are people having sex very early on, and older men predating on younger girls and women, but then those girls have no idea why they are getting pregnant because at school they don’t learn about menstruation, safe sex, all of that. That particular context creates a very nuanced set of challenges.

When you said that gender is seen as a taboo, what exactly did you mean by that phrase?

In Canada, for example, gender is not politicized; you study about it, you are aware of it. But in a context like the Dominican Republic, gender is associated with – what they would see as – an extreme left-wing attitude. From the perspective of the church, these are seen as more radical views, forced onto their children and their society from the outside. Just before we got there, there was a big story about a teacher from what is seen as a very progressive private school who got kicked out by parents and other teachers just because she was teaching literature and there were some gay scenes [in the books]. She got accused of trying to make everyone gay at the school. That is the kind of discourse. Something that would come up in our interviews was that conservative groups organised very well and quickly; so even though there are many small feminist efforts and human rights advocacy groups, they can’t compete and organize themselves as well and are stopped by conservative groups.

Is this an area where public policy might try to bring about change? Give more structural support.

It’s interesting; it’s like the question of chicken and egg. Society plays a huge role in terms of embedded norms and ideas of masculinity. At the same time, there is policy and legislation. So, one thing we ask a lot is: what should change first? There are some frameworks and there have been some important policy changes in the DR [Dominican Republic], but other changes can’t be made because there isn’t enough support. But if we approach it from the side that we should change cultural norms, it would probably be the most effective way, but it would take a lot of time. There are a lot of efforts for early childhood positive gender socialization, but, of course, it will take a lot of time until these changes are reflected in policy. So, there is an interesting tension. To what extent can policy advance change if there isn’t a change in the mindset? Or should policy set the framework for what we should aim for? There is scope for both.

What did you work on in Mongolia?

For Mongolia, I had a research fellowship and was researching independently as well as writing articles on environmental governance and resource governance. I decided to look at water in Ulaanbaatar. I have a colleague who works at the Water Engineering Department and is from Mongolia, and she mentioned that this was a huge issue [there]. I spent three weeks in Mongolia with Dr Ariell Ahearn and Dr Troy Steinberg from the Oxford Department of Geography. I did interviews with people directly involved in the water sector – government, private corporations, advocacy groups – with the help of a translator.

What would be some key points on the intersection between resources, for example, water, and gender in both Mongolia and the Dominican Republic?

The recurring theme is that women are the main household providers and domestic workers in both contexts, although to different extents. In Mongolia, especially, it depends on rural or urban context, as well as seasonality. In rural Mongolia, men leave in the winter to go to cities or to raise livestock. Then the women need to stay at home, clean, and take care of the children. But in both countries, women are the primary users of water, and the primary collectors of water – because they are doing the shopping and, in Mongolia, have to go to central water collection stations. A big water-related burden falls on women. A second important point is water used for sanitation, for example, pregnant women having access to safe drinking water or appropriate hygiene during periods. There are broader implications for women if water is not available. In the Dominican Republic, periods are still seen as a taboo. Having appropriate resources, also in the hospital, is important. It is difficult to do a comparison between both countries, because of how different the contexts are. But that is a big takeaway, too. Perceptions of gender roles and women are so different, and that has a massive implication on how women are affected by resource management. Increased climate change, storms, and natural disasters – all put a strain on them as primary caregivers.

The point you just made about how context-specific these observations are can provide challenges for finding policy solutions on an international level, where you need some general principles that everyone can follow. But you have just highlighted that you can’t overgeneralize cultural differences…

Working with UNICEF, I realized that it is really good when some international standards and requirements can push small country offices to work to those standards. And there are advantages to being able to compare across countries. But when it comes to setting policies, the context is super important for how effective the implementation is. You need to be engaging with the right stakeholders and communicate in a culturally appropriate way. Otherwise, people just won’t hear you or listen to you.

You can read the article Elena co-authored on Water Security in Mongolia in The Diplomat here:,

as well as her article co-authored on Water Security and Gender in The Conversation:

Elena has also just published an academic article on Mongolia: