Working women’s empowerment into conservation initiatives


 Ensuring gender equity is the only path to sustainable development. Photo: UNDP

It is 6:00 a.m. My mother wakes me. Her motto: anyone who sleeps late is “not going to be able to eat their food warm”. It’s a Bhutanese phrase meaning one is unable to feed oneself or meet the needs of the family.

As early as it feels to me, I know she has already spent two hours feeding the animals, fetching a mountain of leaf litter (to serve as bedding for the cows and later be used as compost), and cooking breakfast for all of us. This is how most women in my village begin their days. After breakfast my mother and other women tend crops, walk through the forests to collect firewood or leaf litter, and travel far to bring water to irrigate the fields.  

Women play the dominant role in natural resource management, agricultural production and the well-being and very survival of many rural families. Despite the fact that women also play a critical role in the conservation, management and use of biodiversity, their contribution is often overlooked; they are ‘invisible’ stakeholders. For effective natural resource management they must be seen and heard for the simple reason that this is the most equitable and effective strategy to make a development project thrive rather than wither. This is why UNDP-GEF follows a proactive approach to ensure that the interests of both women and men are explored and integrated during the formulation and implementation of its ecosystem and biodiversity projects.

Making a case for gendered interventions

The basic premise for integrating gender in ecosystem management and biodiversity conservation initiatives is that it not only advances the equity agenda (equality between women and men) but also improves efficiency and effectiveness.  The UNDP-GEF Nepal project Western Terai Landscape Complex Project identified significant gender and ethnic disparities with regard to access to resources, benefits, and decision-making power. All were identified during the project preparation phase. Gender disparity became apparent in literacy; female literacy standing at around 16% in Bardia and Kailali (project pilot sites) as compared to 42-45 percent male literacy.

As a result, gender and social inclusion – ensuring that concerns of women and other disadvantaged groups were included – were accorded a high priority in the project. Following a gender and social audit report in 2010, women were encouraged to assume membership and/or chair roles on think tanks and other community level groups (e.g. Camomile-growers group) that were promoted under the project. The project’s results included increased participation of women in community level natural resource management groups (e.g. Community-based Forest user groups) and also increased capacity to participate in community-based enterprises. In other cases, projects that have consciously worked specific women’s empowerment goals into project objectives have also inspired transformational change.

A good example is the ‘Mainstreaming Biodiversity Conservation in Production Systems in the Juniper Forest Ecosystem’ project in Pakistan, which implemented several measures to integrate gender into the goals of the project. This included  gender analysis to enable formulation of policies addressing both men and women’s role in natural resource management; review of existing policies and laws to identify barriers to greater community involvement in resource protection efforts; providing communities with a sense of ownership and opportunities for economic incentives particularly for women, the main users and managers of forests; creation of village conservation committees to voice the opinions and encourage the involvement of women users.

In some cases, positive gender interventions or activities that benefited women emerged naturally because activities were identified by women members involved in project planning processes. The Linking and Enhancing Protected Areas in the Temperate Broadleaf Forests Ecoregion of Bhutan (LINKPA) project had several gender directed activities such as providing grant support to a local women’s weaving association (yathra weaving) and providing support for roofing materials particularly for women-headed households. Similarly in the case of the Gulf of Mannar Marine and Coastal Biodiversity project in India, while gender equity was not directly focused upon as an issue, there was recognition that to effect change within the fisher communities it was necessary to advance the role of women to improve local economic conditions and enhance marine biodiversity conservation.  As a result, 2,341 self-help groups were formed comprising 34,699 members, more than 1,800 of which (about 76.7 percent) were women’s groups with 27,413 (79 percent) women members.  

Asking the right questions

Projects can only understand and measure gender equality when the right questions are asked, for example, by including sex-disaggregated data (categorized on the basis of women, men and other disadvantaged groups) in baseline and impact surveys.

The Nepal project adopted the gender and social inclusion (GESI) disaggregated data model in its reporting.  In addition, the project also employed a GESI specialist for the terminal evaluation to ensure that these issues were examined in greater detail. The same project has also promoted the use of well-being and wealth ranking exercises to better target pro-poor interventions.

As a result of this gender focus integration in projects an increasing number of women (and those that depend on them) in many countries are now able eat their food warm because the ecosystem and natural resources that they depend on for their livelihood are better managed and well protected.

Environment Ecosystems and biodiversity Blog post Gender equality Women's empowerment Asia & the Pacific

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