Giving a voice to the invisible women in forest product value chains

BOGOR, Indonesia (14 October, 2011)_Finding the hidden links in non-timber forest product value chains could help government and non-government agencies lift women out of poverty, say Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientists in a special gender-themed issue of the International Forestry Review.

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Woman of Pengerak village make a bemban mat. Bemban mat is one of NTFPs from Danau Sentarum National Park, West Kalimantan, Indonesia. Photo by Ramadian Bachtiar/CIFOR

BOGOR, Indonesia (14 October, 2011)_Finding the hidden links in non-timber forest product value chains could help government and non-government agencies lift women out of poverty, say Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) scientists in a special gender-themed issue of the International Forestry Review.

The team of CIFOR scientists examined the value chains of three internationally important non-timber forest products from Africa’s dry forests: from production/harvesting to processing, packaging, transporting, and retailing.

At each value-adding link in the chain, the team assessed the role women play, the benefits they gain and the challenges they face in securing their livelihoods through the trade.

“In the value chains of gum arabic in Burkina Faso, frankincense in Ethiopia, and honey in Zambia, women are key actors at a variety of stages,” says CIFOR scientist Sheona Shackleton, lead author of the study.

“But the women who rely on the non-timber forest product trade are poor, uneducated and tend to have little status in society. Their roles are generally poorly visible and inadequately acknowledged. Fostering women’s empowerment faces several constraints [and it is] particularly difficult to overcome gender-based, social-cultural barriers.”

The constraints these women face are mostly related to issues of access to productive resources such as forests which are often restricted by cultural traditions. Accessing credit or opening bank accounts may be difficult because of their lack of legal status and women often cannot participate in certain activities perceived to be the domain of men due to religious restrictions.

Women’s traditional roles in the home may also mean they are constrained by household and caregiver duties which limit their mobility and time to participate fully in some of the more rewarding activities in the value chain.

The AIDS epidemic in Africa has placed more pressure on women as caregivers, as in the case of Mrs Zewditu, a 78-year-old who sorts gum in one of Ethiopia’s state-owned companies: “Who would employ an elderly woman of my age [who is] responsible for bringing up two grandsons orphaned by HIV/AIDS? Although I do not earn much from the job, it helps support me and my grandsons.”

Mrs Zewditu’s comment gives an insight into why women in both urban and rural settings continue to participate in non-timber forest product trade despite the challenges they face. Their involvement, however hidden, still provides benefits such as increased business skills, independent incomes, protection from riskier work like prostitution, and greater security in general.

And while some depend more on the income from non-timber products than others, all women use their earnings for key purchases: for food and clothing, livestock, health and education needs, and to support children or families.

“I picked 37 kg of gum in 2008–2009 and the money I got has been used to buy clothing and shoes for myself and my children,” said Hindatou Boubacar, a 30-year-old woman involved in gum collection and sale in Burkina Faso, when interviewed by CIFOR researchers.

Women are often targeted by development activities precisely because they are most likely to re-invest in households and contribute to their families. Empowering women not only benefits women, but society as a whole, and is essential for combating poverty.

Despite this, as shown in the value chains Shackleton and her co-authors examined, gender discrimination is still a widespread obstacle to development and poverty alleviation.

The study suggested some practical ways to build economic opportunities for women through non-timber forest product value chains.

“First, and most important, the hidden roles of women and their opportunities and constraints need to be sought out, understood, and recognised. Without this it is not possible to tailor support for these women,” explains Shackleton.

“Once their position is understood, action can be taken to give women tools to improve their involvement, such as helping overcome reluctance to speak out or act by support for collective action and organised groups. This can provide women with greater voice, access to resources and services, negotiating power and economies of scale.”

Because most of these women are uneducated, the study suggests that technical and other training geared towards their specific needs and roles could help improve the situation of women in parts of the value chain, particularly where women are key actors.

Addressing physical constraints through appropriate technologies could also be considered, so long as this technology does not then edge women out, Shackleton cautions.

“Everything must be done with an understanding of women’s time and mobility constraints, giving women room to take advantage of these opportunities through flexible hours, childcare provision, or tools to learn or work from home.”

Government and non-government agencies will also need to carefully assess the hidden gender impacts of interventions to increase production, profits and efficiency in value chains. Commercialising non-timber forest products through a gendered lens means mapping the full value chain, the gendered division of labour along the chain, and the interactions between men and women at different stages.

“There is no single recipe for success, but taking the time to understand the roles of women and their constraints is critical for taking appropriate action to empower women, reduce poverty and further economic development,” says Shackleton.

With increased awareness of the invisible women in non-timber forest product value chains, it is hoped that greater benefits for women could follow. In some cases, this awareness could even expand women’s roles into new areas of value chains, so other women can share the sentiment of one of Zambia’s women beekeepers: “I used to admire male beekeepers and the money they were making, now others admire me.”

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