By Savanna Henderson, Humanitas Global
Monday, March 21st was the International Day of Forests, a global celebration of the myriad ways forests contribute to human well-being and development. Forests are a source of energy, medicine, fiber, building materials, food, and are a source of biodiversity, carbon sequestration and a crucial piece of the water cycle. Nearly 1.2 billion people rely on forest resources for their livelihood but what about women? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) State of the World’s Forests report found that only 24 percent of the world’s women are employed in the forest sector. The World Bank has documented that many women are engaged in the formal forestry industry but often in menial (and sometimes dangerous) jobs in sawmills or plantation nurseries. Despite these findings, in most developing countries, women’s role in the forestry sector is often relegated to collection of materials, like fuel wood, food for the family and fodder for livestock, rather than any type of income generating activities. For instance, the State of the World’s Forests found that women collect 60 percent of wood for fuel globally. While men also collect wood for fuel, they do so to sell while women collect wood for subsistence uses.
Many countries have policies and programs in place to sustainably manage and utilize natural resources and ecosystems while goal 15 of the SDGs specifically highlights the need for sustainable use and management of forests as a component of development. A key message of the SDG’s is to leave no one behind so it is imperative that any policies, programs or actions focused on forests and forest resources be mindful of women, create equitable opportunities that support economic empowerment, growth and sustainable development. Though they are often viewed as key members of the poorest and marginalized groups, frequently cited as beneficiaries in policies and programs, women are not mainstreamed into the forest sector.
As an example of unequal opportunities in the forest sector, a study performed by Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture and Natural Resource Management (WOCAN) found that women are not key stakeholders or beneficiaries of Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) program because of their invisibility in the forest sector. While it varies country to country, forestry is often viewed as a more masculine territory, which often prevents women from being recognized or given opportunities to be participants.
Women in Forestry
There are some exceptions where women are given the opportunity to work in forestry and even seek out more “dangerous” professions. In Gujarat, the government created a 33 percent quota for female employees in the forest department. Called “forest guards”, these women are employed in the Gir National Park, the only remaining habitat for Asiatic Lions. The majority of the women work in the forests, monitoring, observing, protecting and even rescuing the native lions and leopards that call the forests home.
The World Agroforestry Centre published a report titled, “Gender and Agroforestry in Africa: Are Women Participating?” and found women in Africa are less involved in agroforestry than men. One reason is that women’s rights to tree products are limited to those with little or no value while men take ownership of valuable products. Despite that, women were found to be producing indigenous fruits, vegetables, fodder and mulch that they could sell. In addition to providing a small source of income, production of fodder and mulch at home allowed women more time to invest in other productive activities such as replenishing soil fertility.
The government of Nepal has actually created a legal framework to promote equal opportunities and women’s participation in the forestry sector. Roughly 35 percent of the population is involved in community forestry programs (CFUGs). While only a small percentage (5 percent) are solely women operated, there is “increasing anecdotal evidence that women-only CFUGs have contributed to improvements in forest cover and maintained better transparency, communication and accountability in financial management in governance.”
As we move past the International Day of Forests, it’s essential that we keep women’s role and participation in the forestry sector top of mind. It’s been demonstrated that focusing and investing in women and girls can have a multiplier effect on poverty. Their involvement in the formal or informal forestry sector will not only have an impact on poverty but also on environmental sustainability and conservation. But cultural, sociological, economic and political factors can leave women disadvantaged and without opportunities or adequate support to enter the forestry sector even where forest or environmental policies or programs exist. There needs to be a focus on specific objectives that will increase, strengthen and support women’s participation in forestry rather than create empty opportunities