Women can be powerful agents of change, including in conservation. In rural communities, women’s reliance on natural resources provides them with valuable knowledge and skills and strong motivation to work for sustainable management. They also have the right to be involved in decisions about resources and their communities. However, gender issues can be complex, and successful engagement with communities requires careful planning.
Implementers of conservation projects should take a mindful approach to assessing how a project engages women to allow for a more thoughtful identification of challenges, opportunities and appropriate ways of working.
Empathy—working to deeply understand and relate to the experiences, feelings, and needs of someone else—is a powerful tool. Empathizing with women in rural communities includes thinking about their experiences, pressures, motivations, commitments, ambitions, interests, relationships, and fears, among other things.
Project leaders should work to “put yourselves in the shoes” of the women involved to determine ways to make the project more accessible and effective for them. Collect information through gender analysis, stakeholder discussions and feedback, interviews and conversations with women, and by monitoring and evaluating your project’s impacts on women.
As a quick example, let’s consider how a woman’s experiences and perspectives might discourage her from participating in project activities.
Mindfully considering these barriers can help us identify potential solutions, which might include:
There are many approaches to supporting women’s involvement in conservation. Among CEPF grantees in the Indo-Burma Biodiversity Hotspot, three general types of approaches seemed to be particularly effective at promoting women’s skills, confidence, and sustained capacity to work in conservation.
With this approach, community members are active in research planning, data collection, and sharing of findings. Mekong Community Institute (MCI) works in the Ing River Basin in Thailand, training and engaging women in Participatory Action Research (PAR) based on local knowledge, including women’s roles in natural resource use and management.
Women lead data collection on local food from edible plants in community forests, with MCI staff participating as research assistants to the women. MCI prints the research findings in books to distribute to the community and local authorities, with the local women researchers listed as the research team. The books contain the women’s knowledge and the publication is theirs. MCI also helps organize seminars to launch the book to authorities and organizations.
The research, publications and sharing sessions have raised the profile of women’s groups in the Ing River Basin, including among local decision-makers, and have built women’s confidence in communication and advocacy.
Another effective approach is the organization of women’s groups and networks, which offer women the opportunity to connect and share information and inspiration, making it easier to mobilize their skills and resources for conservation.
The Cambodian Rural Development Team (CRDT) supported the formation of livelihood-related community-based organizations, including savings groups mainly for women. The driving idea behind these organizations was to empower women economically, to help them understand the importance of their roles in society and to allow them to build experience working with people of all levels of authority. Through this, they can learn to participate in groups, communicate and make decisions.
These savings groups pool money from members, allowing for loans to be made to selected members for investment in livelihoods. Profits from interest are used to support conservation activities, including patrolling, advocacy and coordination.
CRDT shared the following observations of outcomes from this work: “After working with us for a few years, some of our community members have become elected commune council members and even a deputy commune council leader. Women grew from being shy to being actively involved and elected to local government. They are more confident and willing to speak up.”
A third effective approach is amplifying women’s voices. Women’s insights and perspectives are important, but women are often disadvantaged, and historically, women have not had as much access to platforms for sharing their voices as men. Conservation organizations can support women’s voices by developing or adapting platforms so women can be invited to speak and so issues important to women can become included on the agenda.
The organization My Village in Cambodia meets with women before any public government forum to prepare key topics to include on the agenda and to identify important discussion, which helps ensure women feel more confident. My Village has also learned that if they take an active role in coordinating with the government authority preparing these forums, they are in a better position to influence the topics that are included. These strategies are used to ensure that communities’ concerns and voices, including those of women, are included.
These examples showcase the exciting potential for meaningful, innovative work to promote and sustain women’s involvement in conservation. Efforts by these organizations are based on thoughtful consideration of gender context, plus time and effort invested in understanding and building trust with communities.
To learn more, please see the Empowering Women in Conservation training package produced by Tara Sayuri Whitty of Keiruna Inc. as part of CEPF’s “Building on Success” learning resource series, which aims to promote effective conservation practices across the planet.