Women in the woods

  • Nepal has a long way to go with regard to achieving gender equality goals in forestry
- Bhawana Upadhyay

Mar 21, 2016-

I got an opportunity to interact with many foresters, academics, researchers, donors, government people and development partners while leading a research project funded by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations related to gender and forestry in Asia. Most of the foresters I encountered while executing the project were men who oftentimes gave me the feeling that they were thinking why this lady is invading our territory. Even after the successful completion of the project, one question has been hovering at the back of my mind for a year now. Why are only a few changes being delivered on the ground towards addressing women’s issues despite the many efforts to improve interventions and investments for the empowerment of women in forestry?

The gender gap

Though the research project was implemented in eight countries in Asia, I picked Nepal’s case primarily for two reasons. First, Nepal is the first country in Asia to promote the community forestry (CF) model for sustainable and equitable management of forest resources. Second, I have spent my formative years in Nepal learning and witnessing gender-related changes in CF. It was hard to believe that even a CF pioneering country like Nepal has failed to fully achieve gender equality goals in forestry. It would not be an exaggeration to say that the statistics revealed by the project show little hope for gender equality in Nepal’s forestry sector. 

For example, the number of female staff in the Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation (MoSFc) is very low with women occupying only three percent of the total positions. Though it is the responsibility of the Public Service Commission to ensure that the 33 percent quota for women staff is upheld at all government entities including the MoFSC, no coordinated effort has been made by either of the two to achieve that figure. While the proportion of female members in the executive committees of community forest user groups (CFUG) has gradually swelled to 31 percent, there is still a long way to go to reach the government’s approved target of 50 percent.

Madhu Ghimire, under-secretary and gender focal point at the MoFSC, explained that there was an acute gender imbalance in forest institutions, highlighting the under-representation of women in planning and decision-making. Presently, there are only three female district forest officers (DFOs) among the total 74 DFOs. Bishnu Hari Poudyal, the Nepal programme coordinator of the Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC), expressed his frustration thus: “It is not only about numbers, the level of understanding of women related issues in forestry 

in relation to gender dimensions is critical. Given the powerful role of DFOs and forest rangers in approving operational plans and other aspects of CFUG management, their fundamental lack of understanding about women’s issues has been an obstacle to addressing gender challenges in CFUG operations.”

Talking to MoFSC officials, I realised that gender gaps are mainly due to lack of a proper budget allocation at the ministry for activities related to gender and women’s empowerment. The MoFSC has no special budget line for carrying out gender-related work although funds are allocated on an ad hoc basis for specific programmatic activities. For example, less than one percent of the MoFSC’s total budget was set aside for supporting women’s roles in forestry in 2009-10. The authorities stressed that it was critical to review the budgeting process to set up a gender-responsive budgeting system as it is extremely difficult to implement gender strategies effectively without adequate funds. Rama Ale Magar of the Himalayan Grassroots Women’s Association for Natural Resource Management said, “Though we have reached this far in achieving gender equity in CF, there are still biases against women in terms of allocation of forest resources, and oftentimes women do not get training opportunities.”

Property rights

Despite these challenges in the government sector, the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN), which connects more than 14,000 CFUGs and 8.5 million people across Nepal, has been engaged in creating strong networks linking the poorest of the poor, women and socially excluded people to help strengthen the policy-making process at the national level. There has been a change towards inclusion of poor men and women, Dalits and indigenous people, especially those living on the forest fringes, in the CFUGs through its efforts. However, my experience in social development and gender rights in other Asian countries has taught me that securing tenure and access to rights to forest land and its resources is the most important step towards achieving environmental and gender justice. Many regional and global organisations working in forestry like the RECOFTC, International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (Icimod), Asia Indigenous Peoples Pact and Rights and Resources Initiatives have said that sustainable management of forest and social justice are intertwined. 

Lately, this concept has gained prominence in relation to new forest initiatives for mitigation and adaptation to climate change, especially interventions and investments in reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation. An infographic recently published by Landesa, a rural development institute, reveals interesting facts—women with secure tenure rights and property inheritance rights have an income 3.8 times higher and their children are 33 percent less likely to be severely underweight. It holds greater significance for Nepal where Nepal Demographic and Health Survey 2011 reported the prevalence of underweight, and stunting and wasting in, children under five at 40.3, 56 and 12.5 percent, respectively.

Upadhyay is a researcher working with CGIAR, a global research partnership for a food-secure future, in Lima, Peru

Published: 21-03-2016 08:52

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