Organizations working with REDD+ forget women

BANGKOK, Thailand (11 August 2011)_ The exclusion of women is widespread in the forestry sector even though women are primary users and managers of forests and depend on non-timber forest products in many Asian countries, says a new study.

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The role that women play in the forestry sector has been largely forgotten by organisations involved in REDD+ planning. Photo by Murdani Usman for CIFOR

BANGKOK, Thailand (11 August 2011)_ The exclusion of women is widespread in the forestry sector even though women are primary users and managers of forests and depend on non-timber forest products in many Asian countries, says a new study.

Jeannette Gurung, Executive Director of Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN) spoke about this “woman oversight” during the two-day Second Regional Forum for People and Forests in Bangkok this week.

In an assessment study for USAID on the gender impact of REDD+ projects in several Asian countries, Gurung and colleagues found that organisations, including United Nations agencies, had forgotten to include gender issues in crucial REDD+ decisions, even when women have taken on strong roles in forest protection in some areas.

She said that excluding women is widespread in the forestry sector in terms of governance systems, benefits sharing, policy making, capacity building opportunities, education and jobs. Here she talks with CIFOR about the exclusions of women in forestry as well as the high-level bodies making crucial REDD+ decisions and why it matters.

What do you mean organizations working with REDD+ “forgot” women?

For a USAID assessment, we interviewed community groups and organisations implementing REDD+ projects in Vietnam, Indonesia, Nepal, Cambodia and Thailand about gender impacts. Almost all the organisation officers we talked to had not considered gender issues or women’s roles. The reaction of most of the people we met was, ‘Oh – we forgot. We didn’t even think about these things.’

One of them said they did include a mention of gender in the project proposal but did so to please the donor because it was not a ‘gender project’. Some had never heard of the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW), which is of course related to women’s rights. So there was a widespread, complete lack of attention to gender issues, even in the UN agencies that are mandated to work with gender mainstreaming across all sectors.

While the bad news is that everybody seemed to neglect it, the good news is that there was a lot of interest to do something about it.

What’s the situation at the global level?

WOCAN is very much involved in the global dialogues about REDD+ and climate change mitigation. However, we don’t see much presence of women in decision-making forums. We’ve been struggling to get a designated seat for women’s representation in the Forest Carbon Partnership Facility and the Forest Investment Program (World Bank-managed funding mechanisms), so far with little success. Indigenous people are well represented and recognized in these meetings and other high-level bodies that are actually making decisions about where the funding goes for REDD+ readiness, for example. But the same level of recognition and respect for women as a stakeholder is not there.

Can you tell me a bit about WOCAN and what it is you do?

WOCAN is a network of about 800 women and men, in 93 countries, all of whom are professionals with an interest in helping women and achieving gender equality in the forestry and agriculture sectors. We build capacities with women’s groups and within institutions because we believe the institutions need to change. And the best way to do that is through individual change agents who are insiders of those institutions.

We identify these people, who are typically mid-level people who feel something needs to change. We take them on as partners and mentor and coach them to lead processes of organisational change. We’re now doing that also with women producers’ organisations and users groups. We think that building champions and leaders is really fundamental. And leaders within institutions link to leaders at the community level.

Our approach is to develop a vertical chain of women leaders in institutions that start to feel more accountable to women leaders at the community level and use their position and resources to put things in motion.

What are the risks for women without a gender focus in REDD+?

The biggest one is that the REDD+ planners are designing programs that in many ways are going to restrict women’s access to forests. They are looking at carbon, timber and non-timber resources and not looking at reliance of women and households on the forest to meet basic subsistence needs, for fuel wood, for example.. It could spell disaster. I don’t like to go down that road because I can see all the positive ways to spin things around. The problem is, the REDD+ train is moving very fast and we’ve been saying for two years that women are not on that train. And it’s way down the track. Just now things are turning and key agencies are starting to consider having women’s representation on committees. But it’s been a slog to convince them of the necessity in doing so.

What’s the impact for women if they don’t get on “that train”?

I worry that it’s going to extend the hardship of women’s already extremely hard existence. If the nearby forest is closed off, women will have to search further afield. Or maybe they will have to go out in the middle of the night, which is scary for women.

The reason we feel strongly and why it matters, if you’re going to exclude women from these decisions and benefit-sharing mechanisms, we’re afraid they’ll be forced to have no option but to be illegally harvesting non-timber forest products upon which their families and own livelihoods depend.

The lack of beneficiary mechanisms as well as the heavy emphasis on the technical aspects of REDD+ will isolate and further marginalize groups that don’t already have an understanding or ability to make sense of the new language and new methods.

If we can get REDD+ right, if we could expect REDD+ and community forestry to significantly include women, we could positively affect women’s position and livelihoods through benefit sharing and possible land tenure changes.

How can REDD+ be harmed by not involving women?

That’s the big issue. It’s the efficiency side of things. To be effective, REDD+ has to have consensus, as does community forestry. And if you haven’t provided women with alternative sources of energy, they really don’t have any options – they have to go against what’s agreed.

What can be done at this point?

There have to be safeguards that recognize that women have unique roles and constraints in relation to forest management. You can’t just call a town meeting and expect them to come and voice their opinion. In Vietnam, people were telling me the Free, Prior and Informed Consent (FPIC) process had been quite successful because there was a widespread door-to-door attempt to introduce FPIC and REDD+ and tell them their rights.

What people said to me, after the building of awareness, they were given time. They didn’t immediately say, ‘Here’s FPIC, who votes for it and who’s against it?’ They allowed time for people to confer with their own groups and think about it and reflect on it. It’s that kind of thing you have to build in, opportunities for women in particular. Women are so busy – it’s a pain in the butt to work with women, right? It’s that extra-added effort to do extension. Extension agents don’t like to work at 6 a.m., but if you want to catch women, that’s the time to catch them.

 Why is it difficult to get recognition of women’s roles in forestry in general?

It’s partly due to perceptions that women are not leaders and cannot lead. Sometimes people say it’s because women have low education levels and therefore are not able to serve on governance committees. They point to the fact that they don’t have a high school education or maybe can’t even read and write and therefore they can’t be a leader. Since when is formal education necessary for leadership and to voice one’s opinions?

The policies and the organisations themselves responsible for working in forestry are overlooking women’s specific needs and contributions. We call it institutional gender blindness. Why is this? I think it’s truly the case that forestry is a male-dominated sector, much more so than agriculture and other land use-related sectors.

There’s a very serious lack of awareness within forestry institutions. As well, there are biases against women that are reinforced within the institutions. When you’re one woman in a staff of 10 or 20 men, it’s very difficult to bring forth alternative ways of looking at things. So the norms are never challenged within the forestry institutions.

What is WOCAN doing in terms of women and climate change mitigation?

We are looking for the really transformative changes. Such as biogas, which transforms women’s lives because no longer do they have to go out and get fuel wood. That’s huge. No longer do they have to sit in a smoky kitchen. You can just imagine, you go into a kitchen and turn a lever and you get gas to cook on. This transforms lives because it provides time for women to participate in meetings and to learn new skills. And the health benefits are huge.

We’re also trying to figure out ways to do carbon sequestration with women’s groups, to use carbon to provide a new revenue stream.  That’s transforming lives. That’s putting money into women’s hands as a result of good forestry practices.

Karen Emmons is a freelance writer based in Thailand. 

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