In order for REDD+ to be successful, civil society must be involved as direct partners. REDD+ comes with benefits and risks to communities and indigenous peoples, and civil society organizations act as a vital bridge to represent the voices of stakeholders in decisions that directly affect them. Sri Lanka’s vibrant and vocal civil society includes active women’s groups as well as organizations that play an important role in the conservation of forests and the support, they provide to marginalized forest-dependent communities.
In order to create a conduit for their participation in shaping REDD+ processes, a national CSO REDD+ Platform was established in December 2013. The platform is composed of NGOs working at the community, district and national level on forestry and climate change. One of its primary objectives is to enable women to have a voice and representation at the policy level.
Despite the strong commitment to women’s empowerment the members face several challenges. While the country has a long history of collaboration with non-governmental and community groups on various aspects of forest management, women-focused groups are notably absent in these processes. There is a lack of forest-focused women’s organizations or federations responsible for advocating for gender concerns at the policy level. Any existing forest-related women’s groups are limited to community forestry, agriculture and irrigation projects and tend to be location specific. NGOs focusing on gender issues have a high level of interest in REDD+ but their limited technical knowledge hampers their full engagement. Conversely, NGOs focusing on forest, environment and climate change issues have a genuine interest in promoting women’s engagement in REDD+, however they have little experience in gender issues.
This reality stands in contrast to the crucial, if under-appreciated, role that women play in the forest sector. Women are mainly responsible for collecting forest products for household use and form an active part of the afforestation workforce. However, their inclusion in forest policy and management remains low. Women face a mix of barriers including cultural norms, lack of representation in relevant institutions, and limited access to land ownership. Historically, rural women have a high level of engagement in Sri Lanka’s forest sector activities on the ground. Unfortunately, this has resulted in the common assumption that women’s engagement in REDD+ will be high without any additional efforts to assure their meaningful inclusion.
Ensuring that gender inclusion is consistently on the REDD+ agenda in civil society spaces was, therefore, a high priority within the country. As a result, from 2013 to 2015 and under the support provided by UNDP through the UN-REDD Programme, a number of in-depth capacity building activities were conducted with civil society partners on gender mainstreaming. There was a strong emphasis on developing the capacity of the national REDD+ CSO Platform and creating entry points for the inclusion of gender in this body. This led to the integration of gender within the National REDD+ Strategy as one of the core objectives of the Platform. The Platform also made gender balance as a standard of its operational model, ensuring women held co-leadership roles with women and youth-focused organizations as members. In addition, two representatives, one female and one male, from the Platform were included as members of the UN-REDD Programme Executive Board.
As part of the activities developed to support civil society’s role in gender issues, a study was conducted to identify the perceptions held by the Platform members. This intended to determine the knowledge and understanding on the importance of gender issues and to get an indication of how gender and forestry were addressed at the policy level. The participating NGOs were asked to assess how well the government responds to links between gender and forests and climate change. The results suggested a relatively low consideration of gender by forest policy makers. In this regard, capacity building has been shown to be a valuable tool for increased and effective participation of women in forest governance. Moreover, institutional mechanisms were implemented to better enable grassroots representation at the policy level.
Project pilots were implemented showcasing how REDD+ is integrated into actions by community groups at the grassroots level, providing real-life examples of women’s inclusion in forest-related initiatives. Partnering with the UNDP-GEF Small Grants Programme, the UN-REDD Programme provided funding to eight separate CSO-led efforts to carry out a range of activities, from documenting traditional forest knowledge, to community participation in forest monitoring and protection. All these projects modelled gender parity, achieving at least 50% representation of women, with some activities being led and managed by women.
In 2016, UNDP conducted a series of activities aimed at identifying entry points for gender consideration in national REDD+ efforts, including in the CSO REDD+ Platform. This involved a review of women’s experiences in local-level forestry-based activities which revealed several ways that civil society engagement could be expanded to include the voices of women’s groups. Existing women’s federations and other relevant action groups were identified as powerful allies at the local level. Furthermore, provincial level forums engaging with grassroots activists and state agencies were incorporated by the government into current national REDD+ structures in order to create channels for accessing policy-making conversations. As part of these activities, UNDP delivered capacity building trainings for the CSO REDD+ Platform on how to integrate gender into forest-related actions.
As a result of the gender-focused activities outlined above, the 2017 National REDD+ Investment Framework and Action Plan for Sri Lanka paid close attention to gender in the context of civil society inclusion, incorporating a number of goals, activities and indicators. Expanding the representation of women’s groups in stakeholder forums and networks at different levels was singled out as a priority in the National REDD+ Action Plan. For example, at the national level, the Ministry of Women and Child Affairs was invited to be a member of the REDD+ Advisory and Coordination Board. At the provincial and district levels, building on existing efforts to strengthen CSO representation, relevant women’s and youth CBOs and CSOs have been identified, invited and supported to take part in the dialogue and collaboration with government partners. Concrete targets were created, with a quota for women to comprise at least 30% of any REDD+ decision-making body, committee or consultation activities. Per the Action Plan, women’s groups were also encouraged and supported to participate in provincial-level REDD+ activities.
Sri Lanka’s experience underlines the complexity and intricacies of civil society dynamics around REDD+ implementation. Building bridges, collaboration and mutual understanding between women’s groups and forest-focused NGOs, while providing the space at the policy table for women organizations, can help unleash the powerful role of civil society to support and empower women’s active and equitable participation in REDD+.
 Officially defined as “reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation in developing countries, and the role of conservation, sustainable management of forests and enhancement of forest carbon stocks”, REDD+ incentivizes developing countries to reduce carbon emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.
 In line with the target endorsed by the UN Economic and Social Council, it is widely held that women, at a minimum, should at least make up 30% of any decision making body, committee, consultation, workshop, etc. for more information, see United Nations (1995), Beijing Declaration and Platform for Action, Fourth World Conference on Women
Acknowledgements: This knowledge product was coordinated, written and edited from UNDP Climate and Forests Team: Celina (Kin Yii) Yong, Elizabeth Eggerts and Ela Ionescu
Originally published in the Gender Equality Newsletter Vol. 4