“Imagine if you have a team and you don’t let half of the team play … That makes no sense … That’s true in America.  That’s true here in Kenya. It doesn’t matter.”

Barack Obama, 2015 

About eight years ago I was offered a position at CIFOR. Alongside my land tenure and property rights research, I was asked if I would also take responsibility for gender integration.

I couldn’t help but think, ‘Hmmm, so you want me to do this because I’m a black, African woman? What a cliché!’ But I got over that thought pretty fast. Achieving gender equality is among the world’s most pressing public policy problems. It cuts across multiple sectors and across geographies – and I wanted to play a role in addressing it.

As a student of public policy, one of the questions that continues to vex me is: What happens to good policies and laws once they are enacted? And what enables or constrains their translation into strategies and actions that meet the intentions of the policies and of society more broadly?

Supported by an Austrian Development Association (ADA) grant, the first piece of work I did at CIFOR looked at this question, and applied it to Uganda’s forestry sector.  Uganda was among the world’s early adopters of progressive gender-equitable laws and policies in forestry—they have been in place for more than 20 years.

Uganda’s forest policy is explicit about securing the tenure rights of women, increasing their participation in decision-making and addressing the attitudes and biases that motivate and perpetuate exclusion.

We studied what factors have affected the implementation of these policies – and found that some elements weren’t working as intended. So what to do? We decided to try to do something about it, and together with local partners (Makerere University and AUPWAE), we held hands and jumped!

   Mbazzi Town Center, Mpigi district. CIFOR Photo/John Baptist Wandera

Thus our research ended up also having a strong action element. The diagnostic elements were aimed at answering the first question: What is the situation? The action elements were aimed at piloting interventions in some communities that would provide lessons on how to  address gender gaps in tenure rights, participation and decision-making in community forestry.  We compared those communities with similar control communities where there was no intervention. In intervention communities, we gathered data from participating and non-participating men and women. The design enabled us to assess the effectiveness of our interventions.

The results from the diagnostic part of the research were not surprising. Implementation of gender laws and policies was fragmented, uncoordinated and generally ineffective.

Lack of budgets, incentives, and gender analysis skills and knowledge were major constraints to implementation among national and sub-national agencies with forestry mandates. At the community level, cultural biases held women back from full and meaningful participation in community forestry—they were absent in decision-making and leadership, and were only rarely involved in tree-planting on farms due to the dominance of men’s ownership.

Uganda’s forest policy is explicit about securing the tenure rights of women.

Esther Mwangi, researcher
   Farmers' group signpost. CIFOR Photo/John Baptist Wandera

We did find that that formally-registered user groups were more gender-responsive than informal, unregistered ones. The former, often organized through NGOs or government projects, were required to have constitutions that encouraged and emphasized women’s contributions.

The results from the action part of the research, however, were exciting and hopeful.

We employed the Adaptive Collaborative Management (ACM) approach, which was designed by CIFOR scientists in the 1990s. The approach helps groups to think through their joint problems, envision goals for the foreseeable future, identify actions that would get them there, and then to implement those actions.

ACM also allows groups to monitor their implementation, reflect on what works and what doesn’t, and undertake mitigative action. Though the ACM had previously been applied to address equity gaps, exclusion and marginalization issues in community forestry, it had not been used in such a targeted way to address the gender dimensions of community forestry.

So what did we find? What did we accomplish?

We directly and substantively increased women’s participation in forest user groups. We strengthened women’s tenure rights to forests and trees both on farm and in government-managed forest reserves. We increased the number and quality of interactions between forest-adjacent communities and external actors (e.g. sub-national and national government agencies and NGOs) resulting in greater technical support for community initiatives in Uganda.

More specifically, after nearly six years we achieved the following:

  • The number of women in leadership positions increased by a factor of 18 – from two before ACM to 24 after three years and 36 after five years.
  • The number of women attending community meetings remained steady compared to that of men and youth, which declined. Average attendance per monthly meeting is nine men and 14 women.
  • Increased participation in discussions by women transformed men-dominated meetings to a more equal participation. Women’s contributions to each activity averaged at 20 per activity compared with 23 for men.
  • The number of women owning woodlots increased by a factor of six, from five to 32;
  • Women leaders demonstrated increased confidence and several proceeded to public careers in the political arena.
  • The number of trees planted by women totaled 5896 on farms and 2645 trees in forest reserves for the two communities in CFM partnership. Before ACM intervention, women planted an estimated 350 trees.
  • 82 acres of degraded forest reserves were replanted by both men and women

Capacity-building, inclusion of men in mixed groups, effective facilitation, and developing bridging social capital contributed to achieving this level of gender-equitable transformation.

Capacity-building and training helped to increase the knowledge, skills and confidence of women, enabling them to lead the groups and to implement forestry and non-forestry activities that restored degraded forest, improved household incomes and livelihoods and increased the number of trees planted (and surviving) on farms.

   Topista Lumama. Community farmer trainer. CIFOR Photo/John Baptist Wandera

Clearly, there are processes, institutions and practices that can help narrow or eliminate the gender gap in the use and management of community forests.

Esther Mwangi, researcher

The inclusion of men in mixed user groups encouraged men to champion women’s empowerment and ensured that the processes of women’s empowerment are not necessarily a zero-sum outcome.

Through the registered community groups, women got an opportunity to participate in key decisions and to lead. They obtained degraded forest land in the Central Forest Reserve (CFR) and planted their preferred tree species both on this land and on their farms.  The groups established their own rules of engagement that were accepted and complied with, and enabled joint activities that not only reduced pressure on forest resources but also enhanced the degraded forest. The establishment of horizontal and vertical linkages with external actors was instrumental in assisting user groups to realize their vision.

Horizontal linkages with other communities proved extremely useful in the diffusion and adoption of new ideas and practices (e.g. village banking, village internet centers). Vertical linkages to the National Forest Authority and NGOs ensured support (such as technical capacity, networks, information) and recognition. ACM facilitators created a safe, non-intimidating space where women were able to speak up and share their opinions in the presence of men, free from intimidation or retribution. In particular, facilitation processes ensured that engagement and decision rules provided women with as much scope to influence decisions as men. Consensus, rather than majority vote, was the basis of decision-making.

Clearly, there are processes, institutions and practices that can help narrow or eliminate the gender gap in the use and management of community forests. ACM interventions have strong potential to strengthen women’s rights, participation and leadership, and contribute to their empowerment. That empowerment is by no means confined to women.

   Masaka farmers making baskets. CIFOR Photo/John Baptist Wandera

The user groups and communities as a whole are being made stronger, gaining confidence and taking control. They are now able to lobby external actors for their needs and priorities:  training to add value to coffee, setting up internet cafes for youth, taking up fish farming and water harvesting. Moreover, ACM has been endorsed by the political sphere (eg. Uganda’s Natural Resources and Environment Committee, the Women Parliamentarians Association) as well as by technical personnel in the Forest Sector Support Division and the National Forest Authority.

Legislators are now advocating for rolling out ACM at district level, increasing the budget for tree planting and forest management, and establishing women-managed tree nurseries at the sub-county level.

Where do we go from here? There are many possible directions, but two stand out.

Women’s empowerment is important in its own right, but also as a pathway to improving household and community-wide outcomes. However, the unintended consequences of women’s empowerment are yet to be fully accounted for. In this project for instance, there were cases where men abrogated their family responsibilities because women’s incomes and capabilities were improved by ACM interventions. It would be worthwhile to examine how widespread this is in forestry, land and other resource-related sectors, establish the implications for women, and identify ways of addressing negative effects.

There is also a limited understanding of which rules are more likely to increase women’s participation and influence in decision-making processes, both formal and informal From our ACM implementation work, it is evident that consensus is critical for ensuring that women’s voices are heard and for them to be able to influence decisions.

However, consensus is just one approach to decision making. Future research should explore the rules used in the arenas where gender and forestry decisions are made, such as Parliamentary committees (e.g. policy design, budget allocation), the bureaucracy (implementation of policy), and District Councils (budget allocation, implementation.) This would enable an exploration of: a) the extent to which they favor gender-responsive outcomes; b) the extent to which they allow women’s preferences and interests to be heard; and c) interventions that would support more gender-responsive decisions.

The late Nobel laureate Elinor Ostrom once asked me: “What does it mean to ‘mainstream’ more than half of the world’s population?” I probably still don’t have an answer, but it’s getting clearer: Transforming relationships that have been constructed and perpetuated over centuries is no mean feat – but the right kind of partnerships and good facilitation can help!

   Forest cover in Mbazzi. CIFOR Photo/John Baptist Wandera
For more information on this topic, please contact Esther Mwangi at
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