Over the last several decades, principles of gender equality and women’s empowerment have permeated into numerous internationally agreed upon goals. Ranging from commitments on human rights, peace and security, climate change, desertification, biodiversity, resilience, and sustainable development, over and over again these principles are enshrined as a cross-cutting priority, integral to meeting these commitments.
Sustainable ecosystem management initiatives and policies can likewise benefit from these principles and contribute to progress on global gender equality and the realization of human rights.
It is a common misconception that gender equality only concerns women. Gender equality involves and benefits both women and men, as well as girls and boys and entire communities. Equally valuing the experiences, priorities and environmental solutions of women and men from diverse social groups—and ensuring their views inform interventions—is essential to ensuring a sustainable and just world, improving the credibility and accountability of projects and supporting gender equality goals for the wellbeing of societies and ecosystems. This blog sets out why.
Maintaining various aspects of livelihoods
Ecosystems are highly gendered – women and men derive different values and benefits from ecosystem services and resources, and they hold different roles in accessing, using and managing these resources.
The value and benefits women and men derive from ecosystems are equally important: each contributing to and maintaining various aspects of livelihoods, including health, food security, income and culture. For instance, in some forest-dependent communities, men prioritize and use forest products for commercial use, while women prioritize forest products with multiuse purposes, including toward maintaining food security and culture. Both uses are valid and important, and neither should be ignored when formulating approaches for sustainable management.
If women are not included in assessing and managing resources, they risk losing their livelihoods, and with the social, cultural and legal barriers they face, they have fewer options than men for accessing alternative livelihood options. Sustainable ecosystem management solutions that incorporate gender differentiated considerations help ensure the important knowledge, skills and experiences of both women and men are protected and championed.
Integrating differentiated knowledge for inclusive solutions
Gender differentiated knowledge and experiences are important in addressing major global challenges, including changes in ecosystem resources and services. Decreased access to or availability of ecosystem resources and services – including due to changes in rainfall, effects from natural disasters, urbanization, or unsustainable land use – will have different impacts on the livelihoods of women and men. For instance, women and girls are often responsible for collecting water and firewood for household use, investing a great deal of time and energy every day into completing the necessary tasks. In Somalia, widespread and prolonged drought has increased the time spent by women to do this task, with some walking up to 30 miles to access water for their families, leaving them vulnerable to harsh environmental conditions and sexual violence.
However, women are more than just vulnerable parties – their experiences and knowledge are powerful, and they need to be considered as active participants in formulating innovative solutions. Sustainable ecosystem management approaches that do not incorporate both women and men risk losing out on important knowledge that could be key to efficient, long-term solutions.
One example of the influential and important contributions of women comes from Peru where Andean women farmers are at the forefront of conserving crop diversity. Biological diversity in crops is crucial for adapting to climatic changes and maintaining food security and cultural traditions. However, crop varieties are vulnerable to changes in land use, rural to urban migration and monocropping, among other factors, resulting in accelerated loss of important species. Andean women farmers protect agrobiodiversity through their traditional knowledge and skills by selecting and conserving seeds of Indigenous crops that are adapted to different climates for improved yield, crop health and flavour.
Unlocking opportunities and benefits
Empowering women and men to develop innovative approaches and engage in sustainable solutions to ecosystem management ensures that solutions break down gender barriers. This holds the potential to unlock new opportunities and benefits for women, men and entire communities, while ensuring more effective and sustainable outcomes.
This is shown in a case from Northern Ghana where natural resource degradation contributed to significant declines in shea trees. This particularly impacted women who process shea nuts into oil for income, as they had to travel longer distances in harsh conditions to collect the nuts. To address this challenge, IUCN NL and its partner A Rocha Ghana promoted a sustainable landscape approach with communities to build awareness on restoration and establish a tree nursery, which not only improved tree cover and decreased the vulnerability of communities, but also improved the shea oil production chain and the income and livelihoods of women.
Achieving efficient, effective, long-term outcomes
Despite the equally important but differentiated knowledge held by women and men, women are often left out of decision-making opportunities in environmental sectors, including in ecosystem management. However, experience and evidence demonstrate that equitable participation and decision making between women and men in natural resource management results in more efficient, effective and long-term outcomes.
For example, in Aceh, Indonesia, women use mangroves to sustain livelihoods, including by collecting shrimp and oysters and using the trees to produce charcoal. However, they are often excluded from decision making processes concerning mangroves. Thanks to the establishment of a multi-stakeholder partnership with the district mayor, environmental and women civil society organisations, and different government agencies, both men and women are now involved in forum discussions and public consultations. As a result, women and men have a stronger role in monitoring and advocating for sustainable management of the mangrove forests, and have developed new sustainable income sources, including producing mangrove syrup and jam.
This blog series was prepared by the IUCN Gender Team and IUCN NL as part of the programme Shared Resources, Joint Solutions (SRJS), a strategic partnership between IUCN NL, WWF NL and the Netherlands Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Since 2017, the IUCN Gender Team has supported SRJS partners to meet their gender commitments and goals in their work to protect climate resilience, the water supply and food security. For more resources on gender mainstreaming, visit the IUCN Gender and Environment Resource Center online.