The role, influence and impact of women in biodiversity conservation

Guest blogger Cristiana Pașca Palmer asks: “How do we empower women, as agents of change and frontrunners, to build new pathways or accelerate transition to sustainability?”

Guest blog by
9 October 2018

Cristiana Pașca Palmer is the Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity

Women living in Guatemala's Maya Biosphere Reserve are trained to sustainably harvest xate palms, providing them with income and preserving the reserve's biodiversity (Photo: Dani Newcomb/USAID, Creative Commons via Flickr)

Women need to be equally and actively involved in processes to conserve and sustainably use biodiversity because they play critical roles as primary land managers and resource users, and they face disproportionate impacts both from biodiversity loss and gender-blind conservation measures. 

For example, while women in many countries are increasingly taking on responsibility for managing small-scale agriculture, they do not have an equivalent voice in decision-making related to land use, nor equal access to needed resources. Biodiversity loss also poses a disproportionate burden for women and girls by increasing the time required to obtain necessary resources such as water, fuel wood, and medicinal plants, which reduces the time they can spend on income generating activities and education.

Beyond equity, enabling women’s full engagement in biodiversity decisions is critical to ensure that biodiversity conservation and sustainable use efforts are successful in the long term.

Without the contributions and buy-in of women and girls, these efforts risk overlooking the root causes of biodiversity loss, as well as potential solutions, and may continue to perpetuate gender inequalities.   

Women’s enormous potential to contribute to biodiversity conservation and sustainable development is still to be fully explored

This is especially true for indigenous and rural women, who are often more marginalised in decision-making processes. Women’s particular roles and responsibilities within the household, community, and society lead women to develop unique knowledge related to biodiversity, shaped by their specific needs and priorities. They are thereby in a unique position to bring different perspectives and new solutions to addressing biodiversity concerns.

Research shows that including women in forest and fishery management groups can result in better resource governance and conservation outcomes (PDF). In Rwanda, land tenure reforms that reduce gender barriers to land ownership have led to a significant increase in soil conservation investment by female-headed households.   

Yet, women across the world are underrepresented in decision-making positions related to environmental and sustainable development issues. Women also fall well behind men in achieving paid employment in natural resource management sectors – notably agriculture, fisheries, and forestry – in both developing and developed countries.

Furthermore, according to the OECD’s Social Institutions & Gender Index, as of 2014 (PDF), laws or customary practices of 102 countries still restrict women’s rights to access land. Without equal access to land and other key resources, women’s opportunities and capacity to play an active role in biodiversity conservation is severely limited.   

We need change at every level to improve the participation of women and girls in biodiversity conservation processes 

Measures are necessary to increase the representation of women in decision-making roles related to biodiversity and environmental governance at all levels.

We need to mitigate both cultural and logistical barriers to allow women to voice their needs, knowledge, priorities, and solutions in relation to sustainable development – at the same level as men. Equal rights and access to ownership and control over land are also critically important for women across the world, as reflected in the Sustainable Development Goals (targets 1.4, 2.3, 5.a).  

We must allocate our attention and resources to the local level, to ensure that projects and programmes are implemented in ways that address gender issues. We need to spread awareness among women and girls of proposed biodiversity-related actions that affect them, and we must build their knowledge about their rights and about their options for contributing to shaping those actions.

We also have to ignite the full engagement and support of men and boys to enable empowered participation of women and girls in biodiversity conservation. It is critical that men and boys understand and support measures for women’s empowerment, to ensure that these measures will be accepted in the community.

An inclusive approach would also contribute to addressing the root causes of inequalities, through creating awareness and promoting long-term beneficial action.  

The time is now

Time is precious, and time is on our side: as the international community looks towards developing a post-2020 global biodiversity framework, we have a tremendous opportunity to enhance the participation and engagement of women and girls. We must commit our efforts to spreading understanding of women’s empowerment, and promote it as a cross-cutting component of the work undertaken in implementing the UN Convention on Biological Diversity.

Work is currently under way to ensure that the process to develop the post-2020 biodiversity framework will be gender-inclusive and that the new biodiversity framework will be gender-responsive.

It will take continued effort and support to make gender parity in biodiversity conservation a reality, but governments and international and national partners are increasingly recognising and advocating for more attention to gender issues, thus I have full trust in a fair and thriving future. Now, we all must commit and act on making this bright outlook a reality!

About the author

Cristiana Pașca Palmer is the Executive Secretary of the Secretariat of the Convention on Biological Diversity

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