Female negotiators at Rio+20 must forge common front to give a voice to forest-dependent women

Barriers for women range from institutional factors to "disparaging attitudes and comments from male colleagues".

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BOGOR, Indonesia (20 March, 2012)_Female negotiators across all development sectors at this year’s  Rio+ 20 conference must form a united front to push for recognition and polices that support women in the sustainable management of forests – an effort vital for the success of countries hoping to make the transition to a greener and more sustainable economy.

“While women’s interests may differ across the development divide, many face very similar challenges. Women negotiators must forge a common front in order to champion and give a voice to all women, especially many rural women who live adjacent or within forests who lack access to decision-making forums,” said Esther Mwangi, scientist with the Center for International Forestry Research.

The United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development—Rio+20– held in Brazil in June 2012, will call on world leaders to renew their commitment to sustainable development and to report on progress made as countries invest and develop greener alternatives.

Food, energy and jobs are just three of the seven ‘critical issues’ under discussion, yet forests and the role that men and women play in their protection and conservation –vital to meet the food, fuel and production needs of industrialised nations, and more importantly for reducing the world’s greenhouse gas emissions– has not been fully recognised.

Previous CIFOR research has shown that women involved in sustainable forest management can help monitor and protect forest resources, as well as help in the regeneration of degraded lands and improve carbon stocks needed for climate mitigation strategies, such as REDD+. However they still face gender biases that marginalise them from decision-making processes, access to land and new technologies.

With over 70 women-environment-development organisations from all over the world joining together under the Women’s Rio 2012 steering committee to present their vision and recommendations for a sustainable future, Mwangi is optimistic that despite the challenges, groups like this will encourage “networking and coalitions”  that will enable women to “increase their bargaining power” during high-level discussions.

“I was pleasantly surprised by the focus on gender at last year’s COP17 in Durban and expect no less from the Rio+ 20 conference, which has been around much longer and possibly been infused by principles and ideas from a variety of institutions that have focused on women’s empowerment from multiple dimensions”, she added.

This blog is taken from an interview with CIFOR scientist, Esther Mwangi, as she talks about her hopes for the Rio+ 20 conference and the role of women in sustainable development.

Q: How would you like to see women included at this year talks at Rio+ 20, particularly in regards to the sustainable management of forests? 

A: Forests appear to have dropped off the radar of Rio+20 and are only marginally considered, yet many of the services such as water, food security, biodiversity, are to some substantial degree related to forest cover. In the context of forest ecosystems, both women and men have important roles to play through their knowledge, their management, use and conservation practices.

Despite recent improvements in policy and law, women are still at a much less desirable place with respect to their participation in decision making forums—right from the forest edge to the metropolis where sustainability issues are often discussed. I hope that Rio+20 represents a welcome break from this trend.

Q: Do you think there has been much progress in elevating gender-specific issues to international forums such as this?

A: Researchers are known to focus on international forums that have a direct bearing on their subject matter—research. I have hardly participated in these kinds of forums, but if the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) in Durban is anything to go by, there seemed to be some positive attention to gender. A large number of side events were gender focused, including CIFOR’s Forest Day 5, which had a session on gender.

I was pleasantly surprised by the UNFCCC and expect no less from UNCSD at the Rio+ 20 conference, which has been around much longer and possibly been infused by principles and ideas from a series of global instruments focused on women’s empowerment from multiple dimensions.

Q: There seems to be a lack of women in political/technical positions able to represent women at the policy level, what is needed to break this cycle?

A: I don’t think there is a silver bullet or a blue print as many factors come into play. For developing country women, the barriers are multiple, ranging from institutional factors such as culture to very individualised ones such as a lack of confidence and experience in the public sphere or even just disparaging attitudes and comments from male colleagues.

But how to improve women’s representation? Mandating a proportion of political and technical positions for women is a good thing—it’s a safety board. But we need to be sure that competence is not compromised in our pursuit of equity as it only makes life harder for everyone and possibly reinforces negative stereotypes.

But we need a safety net too—in the form of institutionalised mentoring and support systems. No one thrives on their own and a collective that stands behind the individual has a critical sense of strength—we are mostly only as strong as the collective that defines us. These are just a couple of things, I think there are many other things, including enlisting the active support of male colleagues who, in many policy arenas, have remained insensitive to gender issues.

Q: For those women representing their countries at the conference and are able to influence negotiations, how can they better champion the needs of rural, poor women who could make the most contribution to the sustainable management of forests?

A: I think that networks can be powerful tools to achieve ones goals and interests. Networking and building coalitions with other women negotiators to forge a common front and to increase their bargaining power is one possible way of championing and giving voice to many rural women who live adjacent or within forests.

While women’s interests may differ across the development divide, many issues are shared in common and a common voice can help. But increasingly, policy makers are leaning towards wanting evidence to back up their policies. This also provides an opportunity for women negotiators to reach out to the research community in a much closer dialogue than before.

To ensure that  Rio+20 delivers 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! 

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