Empowering rural women for U.N. International Women’s Day

Global community must move beyond ‘add women and stir’ approach.

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Photo courtesy of UN Photo/John Isaac.

BOGOR, Indonesia (8 March, 2012)_The United Nations have chosen the theme “Empower Rural Women – End Hunger and Poverty” to celebrate International Women’s Day 2012. To achieve this goal in forestry, governments, donors, and non-government organisations need to pay more than lip service to the idea of gender and give women a strong role in forest management.

“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,” said CIFOR scientist Sheona Shackleton, lead author of a study of the invisible women in forest product value chains.

These values also must form the heart of sustainable development, and of the outcomes of the Rio+20 UN conference in June, say experts. Twenty years after the first Rio conference, great social and economic inequities still remain. These inequities especially affect women and children, who make up the majority of those living in poverty.

Rural women are also often major users and managers of forests in developing countries through their roles as household providers. They are more dependent on forest resources for the majority of their food, fuel and livelihoods, and are therefore more likely to take an active role in protecting forests.

Despite the key role that rural women play in supporting their households and communities, gender biases still marginalise women and their participation in community forestry. A lack of education, employment opportunities and access to networks means that women are at a disadvantage when it comes to influencing key decisions in the sustainable management of forests and in capturing benefits from forests.

“When we talk about ‘gender’, there is often a tendency to take the ‘add women and stir’ approach; however, strategies and approaches that enable women to actually participate in decisions and influence policy will be much more successful”, said Carolyn Peach Brown, author of Gender, climate change and REDD+ in the Congo Basin forests of Central Africa.

Not only are rural women persistently constrained in their efforts to support themselves and their communities, they are even prevented from laying full claim to their basic human rights.

According to the Inter-Agency Task Force on Rural Women, rural women worldwide fare worse than rural men and urban women and men for every Millennium Development Goal indicator for which data is available.

At the UN climate talks in Durban in December 2011, the head of a women’s organisation said the donor community could do more to push for the inclusion of women in climate strategies. Many agencies and organisations are demonstrating ‘gender blindness’, leading to little investment and support for gender programmes in forestry, such as REDD+. A sobering statistic from the FAO shows that just 10% of the total aid for agriculture, forestry and fishing goes to women.

“Without the push from donors, or the drive to institutionalise gender at the programme level, there is little incentive to move ahead with gender-based programmes. Donors should provide greater support to programmes that seek to enhance the role of women in forestry and resource management”, said Jeannette Gurung, Executive Director, Women Organising for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN).

A lack of strong female voices in forestry at the grassroots level is also reinforcing preconceptions that men dominate the sector, said Gurung. Though donors do support gender programmes, these are usually focused on the more traditional ‘soft’ sectors of health, social and education instead of supporting the role of women in natural resource management.

Mainstreaming gender into policy frameworks will be vital to ensure that the rights and needs of men and women are included in the design and implementation of climate migration strategies. Although some donor agencies have strong gender policies at the national level, “these rarely provide support to women’s organisations at the grassroots level,” argued Gurung.

“Gender is just one part of a whole range of complex factors that underpin gender biases and limit the voice of in women in forest governance. Including women in decision-making is a good start, however overcoming entrenched institutional barriers and minimising costs that constrain their meaningful participation will be key,” explained Esther Mwangi, CIFOR scientist and gender specialist.

“There are whole range of factors that determine women’s participation in forestry. We need to identify the barriers to their inclusion, what can be done to strengthen their ability to voice their interest, and how to move policy in directions that they see as desirable.”

Making the effort to close the gender gap is more than worth it. Understanding the different roles and responsibilities of women, and increasing their opportunities to participate in forest management, could help address gender imbalances in the forestry sector — and have a positive impact on the sustainable management of forests.

CIFOR research has shown that mixed groups of women and men lead to better forest management. Forest user groups with a higher proportion of women improved – and often accelerated – the regeneration of forested lands.

“Studies are increasingly showing that when women are included in forest management, they have had a positive effect on the sustainable management of forests,” said Mwangi.

And with the impacts of climate change expected to result in greater environmental degradation and the depletion of natural resources, harnessing the knowledge and expertise of women in the management of forest resources will be vital for climate adaption and mitigation schemes like REDD+ to work.

CIFOR scientist Carol Colfer, co-author of a study on the link between health and forests, also stressed that women must be meaningfully included in decisions and policies relating to issues such as development and the environment.

“Women know what they want, what they are capable of, and can be powerful allies in attempts to reduce health problems related to reproduction”, Colfer said. “[This] can in turn liberate them for involvement in income generation, education, collective action, and political and conservation activity.”

To ensure that  Rio+20 deliver a global message that forests matter to sustainable development, CIFOR will coordinate one of the most important conferences on forests on 19 June, 2012. Forests: The 8th Roundtable at Rio+20 will discuss new research findings, remaining knowledge gaps and policy implications for integrating forests into the solutions to four key challenges to progress toward a green economy: energy, food and incomewater, and climate. Seats are limited so register here to avoid disappointment! 

Sheila Sisulu, the World Food Programme’s Deputy Executive Director for Hunger Solutions, talks to CIFOR at Forest Day 5 about the link between women’s livelihoods and the sustainable management of forests.


Learn more about CIFOR’s gender research in forestry here.

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Topic(s) :   REDD+ Gender