“We need change,” says Dorothée Lisenga, indigenous delegate at a Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) workshop on protecting indigenous women’s rights to land and forests in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in December 2017.
As communities around the world seek to shake off the legacies of colonialism, land tenure is a critical, and controversial, issue. Informed by the Forest Principles that were put in place at the Rio Earth Summit in 1992, recent reforms across the globe have sought to return access, management and in some cases ownership rights to indigenous communities living in and around forests.
But when these rights are resurrected, women often miss out, says workshop leader and African Women’s Network for the Community Management of Forests (REFACOF) coordinator Cécile Ndjebet. Unequal gender relations within communities, countries and partnering organizations often mean women’s relationships with land are not taken into account in reform processes, which can compromise livelihoods and further entrench gender disparities.
The DRC is currently in the midst of national-level land reform processes, providing gender activists in the DRC a ripe opportunity to instigate transformation, says Lisenga. Accordingly, the workshop sought to take stock of indigenous women’s rights and levels of participation in the ongoing programs, activities and processes related to the reforms, as well as explore how to influence these to better mainstream gender issues.
SEATS AT THE TABLE
The event brought together civil society and government representatives, national resource management experts and indigenous women from the Mai-Ndombe province in the east of the country, where a REDD+ initiative is currently being implemented. Participants identified a range of challenges for indigenous women’s inclusion and recognition in tenure discussions and development processes.
At the local level, Ndjebet says that the notion of gender as a social construct – subject to alternative viewpoints – is still unfamiliar for a lot of indigenous women, and they are frequently fearful of the social consequences of calling gender roles into question. “So we have a lot of work to do to train and educate these women and their communities, and get them feeling more confident about changing things,” she says.
Policy change to give women recognizable tenure rights would make a big difference at this level, furthers Lisenga. At present, “women can access the land, but they have no authority over it under the patriarchal system,” she explains. “Men still make the decisions about it and benefit from it. We need to persuade the local authorities to amend the laws, so women can get official titles to the land.”
Inclusion is also constrained by the fact that many of the organizations implementing programs in DRC forests don’t understand gender issues well, or recognize the added value of having indigenous women and local communities at the center of what people are doing, says Ndjebet. “And if they don’t understand, they don’t practice.”
Participants from Mai-Ndombe shared that the REDD+ programs there still appear to be operating under a ‘business-as-usual’ framework, which doesn’t take into account the specificities of involving indigenous women or even communities in general. What’s more, even if these kinds of organizations are open to being more gender-inclusive, it’s felt that few local implementers currently have the knowledge and skills to bring such an effort to light. So, training and capacity building at the organizational level is also a critical piece of the puzzle.
Ndjebet also notes that the country’s indigenous women – many of whom are illiterate – need support to get better connected and organized, “so they can be systematic in their actions and try to influence what is going on.” A number of the governmental reform processes have created space for community participation, she says, “and now we need to help these women to really get involved in those processes.”
Women can access the land, but they have no authority over it under the patriarchal system
TIME FOR CHANGE
Despite the challenges described above, now is the perfect time to push for change on gender issues in the DRC, says Lisenga. For one thing, the land reforms recognize local and indigenous communities’ rights to forests in the form of community concession areas, and women are being encouraged to apply to manage these areas and gain a living from them.
The government has also set up a gender working group within the land tenure reform process, which presents an obvious opportunity to push for greater gender equality, adds Ndjebet. A Ministry of Gender has been established as well, which should also help with advocacy and mainstreaming work, she says.
What’s needed now, says Lisenga, is to spread the word about gender issues wider and build a country-wide movement for change. “We need to disperse key messages on the radio; have conversations with women in the market, the field and the forest; produce documents and videos; and talk to the government, especially the women parliamentarians,” she says.
“We need to show that we can work together,” she urges. “It’s time to build the dialogue between indigenous women, traditional authorities and the government, and to break the cycle of discrimination and marginalization.”
As CIFOR Principal Scientist Esther Mwangi, leader of the organization’s Global Comparative Study on Land Tenure Reform research team, acknowledges, “securing local tenure rights is a multi-dimensional, multi-actor enterprise, and securing women’s tenure rights is even more complex.”
“The workshop has shown that civil society in the DRC is advocating for an approach-and-negotiation process from the get-go that takes into account the complexities of cultural bias, lack of technical knowledge and skills as well as fear, and provides a central role for indigenous women in the process,” she says.
“It’s a marked departure from the post-hoc, fragmented efforts we see in so many settings today.”
This article is part of a two-piece series on land tenure in the DRC. Read the other story here: Rights in the DRC: What’s getting in the way?
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