Promoting Gender Equality through Conservation

A woman farming in Madagascar. (© Cristina Mittermeier)

For more than a century, International Women’s Day has celebrated the achievements women have made — and drawn attention to how much more needs to be done to reach true gender equality across the globe. One recent success: The development and conservation communities are paying closer attention to the roles that women can play in sustainable development solutions.

According to the United Nations Development Program, women produce anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of the world’s food, yet they own only 10 percent of the world’s land. Wetlands International has reported that women in poor communities across Asia, Africa and South America typically walk an average of three miles a day to fetch water for their households, often from contaminated sources such as rivers, unprotected springs and shallow wells. In many places, women have limited access to basic resources such as land, credit, livestock and tools.

In the world’s most important natural areas, where CI works, women play an important role in meeting their families’ daily food, water and shelter needs. In many of these places, women and girls are often the primary collectors, users and managers of water. They are therefore increasingly vulnerable to freshwater scarcity due to climate change impacts, which will make fetching water more difficult and time-consuming. Decreased water availability will negatively affect family livelihoods and increase workloads, jeopardizing girls’ ability to attend school.

Girls collect water supplied by Bale Mountains National Park in Ethiopia. Across the globe, women and girls are often the primary collectors, users and managers of water. (© Robin Moore)

As providers and consumers of water, women should play a more central role in controlling, managing, safeguarding and making decisions about water resource management — and other conservation efforts as well.

At CI, we promote conservation and development solutions that safeguard healthy ecosystems and the essential services — such as flood protection, pollination and carbon storage — people everywhere rely on. In order to promote equitable distribution of these services and benefits, CI and partners need to fully recognize and understand the social and economic dynamics involved in providing and utilizing these services. This requires a grounded ability to incorporate gender equity principles and approaches into our daily work with diverse, complex cultures and societies.

For example, from 2003 to 2008, CI-Madagascar worked with local partners in the Zahamena-Mantadia Biological Corridor to implement alternative livelihood and nutrition training for 55 women’s nutrition teams with more than 1,500 members. By targeting women’s groups, the project increased women’s participation and empowered them to conduct community-based childhood nutritional activities.

In the Philippines, women’s roles in society are different, so gender integration strategies take into consideration the different aspects of women’s participation. CI-Philippines implemented a Population, Health and Environment project in northern Luzon from 2002 to 2008, which trained women and men in agroforestry and environmental monitoring. As a result, female monitors reported several violations of environmental regulations to local authorities, which led to arrests. These women were publicly recognized for their efforts.

The issue of gender equity is more than just a women’s issue; it’s a human rights issue, and one that can only be solved by addressing the differences in knowledge, access and power between men and women.

As a member of the Conservation Initiative on Human Rights, CI is developing our rights-based approach to conservation, whereby we strive to protect human rights in all aspects of our work. An important component of this approach is our commitment to incorporate gender into our planning, field implementation and policy efforts. We are currently developing a gender policy that calls for consideration of gender-based constraints and analysis of opportunities to strengthen both men and women’s roles in protecting ecosystems.

As someone who has worked on women’s health and conservation issues since the early 1990s, I’m excited to see the increased attention and recognition of women’s contributions to conservation. I think back on the many dynamic women I have encountered, from Morocco to Madagascar, who were doing their best to improve their families health in the face of serious resource constraints. I am confident that this renewed gender focus is the beginning of an important new chapter in development, and that their voices will finally be heard.

Janet Edmond is the director of the Population Environment program within CI’s Health Security initiative.


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