To see conservation success, we need to look through a ‘gender lens’

Woman and her grandson prepare to fish

Woman and her grandson prepare to fish at Wainadawa creek near Nadakuni Village in the Sovi Basin, Fiji. (© Conservation International/photo by Peg Arrington)

Editor’s note: To achieve an effective conservation outcome, you need a crucial piece of information: how women and men in the community use nature differently. In the waters off many Pacific Islands, for example, you’ll often find women gleaning in the shallows while men fish in deep waters two fundamentally different uses of marine resources. Understanding the distinct roles and responsibilities of women and men and how conservation work impacts them is critical to supporting communities and making conservation efforts successful.

To help further this understanding and to strengthen the skills of CI staff and partners, Conservation International (CI) recently piloted field-based gender workshops in Fiji, Samoa and Ecuador. Human Nature sat down with Kame Westerman, CI’s adviser for gender and conservation, and Whitney Anderson, gender focal point for Asia-Pacific, to discuss what we all need to learn about gender and conservation.

Question: What does gender have to do with conservation? 

Kame Westerman (KW): First, it’s important to understand what we mean by gender. We’re referring to gender as the characteristics of women and men (such as norms and roles) that society has constructed — characteristics that vary considerably between cultures and over time. Recognizing and responding to these differences is critical to respecting human rights and promoting successful conservation outcomes.

As conservationists, we work with communities to protect forests, to manage coral reefs, to save critical species. To successfully achieve CI’s conservation goals and to collaborate with communities to make lasting changes for future generations, we must be able to communicate with, educate and motivate entire communities made up of men, women, boys and girls to act. Understanding the different needs and perspectives of everyone — how they communicate, how they learn, what motivates them, what unique ecological knowledge they have and how conservation initiatives may impact them — is therefore vital to our work.

Women fishing

Women fishing at Wainadawa creek near Nadakuni Village in the Sovi Basin, Fiji. (© Conservation International/photo by Peg Arrington)

Q: Why did you go into the field to have these discussions on gender and conservation?

Whitney Anderson (WA): Our field-based staff are often in the best place to understand local gender contexts in relation to conservation priorities. With training and skills, our staff are able to develop a “gender lens” — meaning they can recognize and respond to the different gender components of conservation projects, ensuring that we can design our conservation work to reach the entire community.

The field-based workshops we piloted in Samoa, Fiji and Ecuador aimed to build and refine these skills among staff and local partners. The workshops have proven to be an efficient and cost-effective way of providing CI employees with the knowledge and skills — the toolbox — to apply that gender lens to their conservation projects.

Q: What’s involved in a gender workshop? 

WA: The gender workshop held with the CI Samoa program and partners was the first of its kind. Together with local staff, Kame and I designed the workshop so that over the course of two days, participants would  learn and became comfortable with key gender concepts (such as definitions of gender equity, equality, gender analysis and gender mainstreaming), explore the gender roles and culture of Samoa, outline how those roles influence the way men, women and children interact with their environment and identify specific entry points for improving the success of key projects in the country.

One of our partners who participated in the Samoa workshop, Christine Tuioti Mariner of Samoa Conservation Society, described how the gender workshop specifically helped her with her work: “I am often working with communities, and because of the lack of understanding of how to incorporate gender [into my work], I felt that there was gap in ensuring all parties are considered when designing a project. And if there was [a gap], I felt it was often not reported adequately. The workshop equipped me with ways I can ensure there is proper consultation and inclusion of all gender parties before and throughout a project.”

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Q: What is the next step?

KW: Too often, we get “workshop syndrome” — we have great discussion, learning and sharing at a workshop … but then everyone heads home and quickly gets bogged down in day-to-day work. When designing these workshops, we took particular efforts to make sure participants would leave with tangible and practical next steps. We spent considerable time focusing on specific projects that participants are currently working on — guiding them through identifying opportunities for addressing gender, and developing culturally-appropriate and useful methods to capitalize on opportunities and to address existing gender barriers they’ve identified.

Our intent is to replicate these workshops in other CI offices around the world and to build a broad network of skilled practitioners of gender-integrated conservation.

Several participants mentioned “aha!” moments during the workshops — one even described their gender lenses as “getting clearer.” Ultimately, this reinforces that program staff are best placed to integrate gender into our conservation projects, and that workshops such as these begin to give them the tools to do so.

Kame Westerman is CI’s adviser for gender and conservation. Whitney Anderson is CI’s senior program coordinator for Asia-Pacific and the Coral Triangle Initiative, and the gender focal point for Asia-Pacific.

Sophie Bertazzo is a senior editor for CI.

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