Why don’t women participate in forest governance and what difference will their participation make?

Increasing women's participation in community forestry governance will not only be good for women, but also for forests.

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“Scholars…focusing on gender and governance have been concerned mainly with women’s near absence from governance institutions. The presumption is that once women are present all good things will follow. But can we assume this? No. Rural women’s relationship with forests is complex.” — Bina Agarwal, Development Economist (via im4change).

Alarmed by widespread inequities between men and women in the governance of forests, for decades researchers and practitioners have been exploring different ways to enhance women’s participation.

But an extensive review of the gender and forestry literature revealed that much of the research has been concentrated in South Asia. There are two reasons for this, the authors said. Many South Asian countries have made pioneering shifts towards devolution and decentralization over the past 10 years, but also Bina Agarwal’s work on gender and community forestry in India and Nepal has left a strong legacy.

Bina Agarwal, a notable feminist/development economist and former Director of the Institute of Economic Growth in Delhi, has written extensively on property rights, the political economy of gender, poverty and inequality in South Asia from a gender perspective.

In a widely cited paper in World Development, Agarwal eloquently argued that women’s lack of participation in community forestry is due to a number of interlocking inequalities at the household, community and state levels. Increasing women’s bargaining power so that they can participate equally in community forestry governance will not only be good for women, but also for forests, she argued.

In her recent book on Gender and Green Governance, Agarwal tests these theoretical ideas in the context of community forestry in India and Nepal.  She finds that women’s greater presence in the decision-making body of forest associations makes a significant difference to the two primary objectives of community forestry – better conservation of the resource base and meeting local needs.

Agarwal is also concerned with how much presence is effective presence. Feminist researchers and advocates have long argued that a critical mass of female representatives in political processes is required for gaining attention to women’s policy concerns. But with figures ranging between 25% to 50%, there is little consensus as to what constitutes a critical mass, thereby underscoring the importance of determining the threshold empirically in different contexts.

Agarwal also finds that women would be more effective in promoting women-friendly rules and improving the condition of forests if they constituted a “critical mass” in forest associations, with the threshold lying between a 25-30% for presence in meetings and around 25% for office bearer positions.

However with the focus of this research primarily on South Asia, it’s time to offer important lessons and insights to other regions, studies argue, where both gender relations as well as history and approaches to decentralization differ.

Extending Agarwal’s analysis to Africa and Latin America

A recent paper by Coleman and Mwangi (2013) tests the hypotheses made by Bina Agarwal’s theoretical model that are considered to be determinants of women’s participation:

  • Rules that exclude women from becoming a member of forest associations
  • Norms such female seclusion, unequal division of household and care responsibilities
  • Social preferences that give more weight to men’s than women’s participation
  • Entrenched claims by men who are hesitant to give power to women
  • Personal endowments (such as land and social networks) that would allow for effective participation from women
  • Household endowments (such as social and economic position) that prevent effective participation of the household, including those of women household members

Coleman and Mwangi’s global analysis considers two questions: What determines women’s participation in forestry institutions and what effect does women’s participation have on institutional outcomes? Two institutional outcomes were considered – levels of conflict and rule fairness – which are thought to be critical for effective collective action.

To go beyond case-specific and region-specific studies, they analyzed two different global datasets – at the household and forest association level – identified by the International Forestry Resources and Institutions (IFRI) Program.

The analysis of household surveys found that women’s participation in forestry institutions was likely to be higher the longer the head of of their household went to school, that larger households were more likely to have equal responsibility for women and men and that women-headed households were more likely to have women responsible for participation.

Feminist researchers and advocates have long argued that a critical mass of female representatives in political processes is required for gaining attention to women’s policy concerns. Tomas Munita/ CIFOR

Feminist researchers and advocates have long argued that a critical mass of female representatives in political processes is required for gaining attention to women’s policy concerns. Tomas Munita/CIFOR

While most of these findings are intuitive and reinforce Agarwal’s model, the study also found that women’s participation did little to change the women’s perceptions of fairness of rules and penalties.

Such a finding should be concerning to those who argue that one of the main objectives of women and men participating in environmental decision-making is to help shape policies that the participants prefer.

If women’s participation is meant to help shape policies, Coleman and Mwangi argue, it does not appear that household participation is linked to policies they favor, such as more “fair” rules and penalties. (“Fair” could be in terms of greater access to fuelwood or penalties imposed for not complying with restrictions on access to fuelwood as women are primarily responsible for extracting fuelwood).

At the forest associations level, they found that the small differences in male-female wages also meant there was a higher probability of having a woman leader of the forest association. When council seats are acquired competitively, women are less likely than men to win positions. This may point towards an unfavorable playing field that discourages women’s leadership. They also found that women’s participation, especially when women are seated on forest councils or attain leadership positions, results in less conflict.

Pushing for a greater presence of women

Development organizations, NGOs and government can employ the evidence generated from these studies to push for greater presence of women in forest associations.

They can encourage forest user groups to adopt non-competitive seating and lax membership rules in the short/medium term. Male-female wages and wealth inequality are more systemic and require a longer-term, more concerted effort to help address. Nevertheless, they underscore the importance of finding synergies between forestry and other sectors such as education and labor.

Future research can also build on this study in a number of important ways.

Women’s participation does little to change their perceptions of fairness of rules and penalties.

The IFRI dataset is an example of an existing global comparative study that builds in (though rather limited) gender concerns. To help us better understand gender settings across the developing world, future global datasets should routinely incorporate gender questions that allow us to disaggregate men and women along factors such as age, wealth and ethnicity. This would enable us to account for within-group variations and better understand how gender intersects and interacts with other social stratifications.

It would also be interesting to use a compilation of the IFRI indicators (condition of forests, as well as local people’s perceptions of forest management practices and forest cover change) to measure the impact of women’s participation on forest outcomes (both biophysical, in terms of forest cover and condition as well as social in terms of institutions in place to facilitate collective action).

Lastly, future research could focus on exploring the issue of critical mass further and explaining how women’s participation in forest governance translates into outcomes and policy lessons for women’s empowerment and better-governed forests in different contexts.

Bina Agarwal has contributed significantly to the literature on gender and forestry by identifying a range of factors that impinge on women’s participation and the impact that women’s presence will have on the women themselves and forest outcomes. Coleman and Mwangi’s study serves as an example of the importance of building on Agarwal’s contributions and their validity and relevance across different countries. Together, these studies have given further legitimacy to the urgency of improving women’s participation in forest governance.

Bimbika Sijapati Basnett is a post-doctoral researcher with CIFOR’s governance team. You can contact her at

For more information about CIFOR’s research on forests and gender, which is part of the CGIAR Research Program on Forests, Trees and Agroforestry, visit

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