Why do women matter in conservation?

When I told my MVetSci supervisor that for my Masters degree dissertation I wanted to look at the importance of consciously factoring women into conservation planning, they initially looked at me askance. ‘Isn’t that… sociology?’ But no, I told them, factoring women into planning doesn’t just impact on the women involved, it actually affects conservation outcomes. And so they had to concede that this was a legitimate area for a conservation medicine practitioner to study…

Does the inclusion of women really affect the outcome of a conservation project? The short answer is yes, it does. To give one example, in a study comparing forest management groups in India and Nepal, one researcher demonstrated that the presence of a higher proportion of women on forest management committees led to better forest regeneration and canopy growth.  This was even more marked in all women groups, despite their initially receiving more degraded, smaller patches of forest to work with than mixed or male only groups.

Lack of female inclusion at the planning stage can lead to failure of a project – one forestry project in Thailand consulted only men regarding varieties of tree to plant.  The men chose hardwood tree species as a cash crop, but women in that area are the ones who care for seedlings.  The women prioritised softwood species of tree for subsistence and fuel, and therefore left the three thousand hardwood seedlings provided by the forestry officials to die.  Once the forestry commission took all residents concerns into account at a second consultation, they were able to provide a mixture of species and the trees were properly cared for.

In a further example of a lack of female inclusion causing difficulties which should have been entirely avoidable, a project to introduce new varieties of rice in developing countries resulted in significant crop failure, as development workers only explained how to care for the new crops to ‘village leaders’, who were men, and who did not pass this information on to the actual planters, who were women.

Across most of the world, there is a gendered division of labour, for example, in rural populations in India, women bear the vast majority of responsibility for harvesting forest resources, mostly fuel for firewood and fodder for livestock.  Consequently, women visit the forest more frequently and show a much greater awareness than the men in the area of the condition of the surrounding environment. This pattern is repeated everywhere around the world in many different contexts; in fisheries men tend to fish commercially off shore, often in boats, and women mainly fish for subsistence near shore on foot. Globally, women provide up to 90% of rural poor people’s food and produce 60 – 80% of the food in developing countries.

Kenyan women working in the field.

As a result, men and women hold different forms of traditional knowledge regarding biodiversity, specialised knowledge about species for example, or specialised skills related to their usual roles.  One study in West Asia concluded that the gender roles of women gave them a knowledge of the uses of medicinal, herbal and aromatic plants, which contributed significantly to biodiversity preservation in that context. And this gendered division of information is exacerbated by a lack of knowledge sharing between genders.  It is clear that if women possess different knowledge to men, their exclusion from the planning process will lead to a loss of all this relevant expertise.

It is necessary to adopt a gender aware approach if women’s voices are to be heard, because it has repeatedly been shown that a gender blind approach leads to a marginalisation of women’s voices and concerns.  Social constraints mean they are less likely to participate in village meetings, or to speak if they attend.  Research is strongly biased towards interviewing the ‘head of the household’, usually a male, and the perception among researchers is that men are often ‘more accessible’ for questioning.  The end result being that men’s information is presented as the whole story, and women are ignored

‘Women’s and men’s relationship with nature needs to be understood as rooted in their material reality

Feminist Environmentalism

We also need to consider that women bear a disproportionate cost of the impact of environmental degradation. They suffer disadvantages such as lack of property rights, tenure and access to land, lack of education and little access to credit which render them more vulnerable. In addition, women often cannot switch to paid forms of labour or migrate to find work, as men do in times of hardship, due to social constraints.  In Latin America, it is estimated that rural women have title to only 30% of the land and receive 10% of the credit, and 5% of the tech assistance, despite producing 40% of the region’s food.  With increasing male migration to urban areas to find paid work, a growing number of women left behind to look after the family are forced to take on greater responsibilities, often without a corresponding increase in rights. 

It is women that are primarily responsible for feeding the family and if crops are lost, women will often go without themselves before allowing their spouse or children to go hungry.  If forests become degraded, it is women that must walk further daily to collect firewood, as undernourishment can result from a shortage of fuel for cooking, as much as from a scarcity of food.  And it is female children who will primarily be taken out of education prematurely if their mothers need help gathering increasingly scarce resources.  In one study in India, it was shown that before deforestation women had walked a daily average of 1-2 km to find firewood, 8 years later it was an average of 8-10km.

Ecofeminist thought proposes a set of unique ‘woman-nature connections’ and says that women have a particular stake in ending the domination of nature, because the domination of women and of nature have occurred together, to both their detriment. And this is true, but this theory may not even be necessary to explain why women are so important in conservation planning, maybe it’s just that when you exclude half the population of the world, you miss out on a lot of possible solutions to the huge crisis we’re facing…

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