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Equality for Women and Sustainable Development Go Hand in Hand

By Elizabeth Matthews, Michael Painter, and David Wilkie

Half of the world’s farmers are women, but women only own about one percent of the world’s land. Similarly, women make up nearly 50 percent of the global fisheries workforce, but in most countries have little to no say in how fisheries are managed. These statistics are indicative of a more general trend:  women’s interests and roles are seldom seriously considered in the design and implementation of rural development and conservation initiatives.

Women bring in a catch in Fiji, one of several seascapes globally where WCS works  to promote sustainable fisheries. Credit: Stacy Jupiter © WCS
Women bring in a catch in Fiji, one of several seascapes globally where WCS works
to promote sustainable fisheries.
Credit: Stacy Jupiter © WCS

The common biased view is that that men are farmers or fishers and women only care about children and health care. But how can we eradicate poverty, or improve environmental governance, if we ignore what Sheryl WuDunn and Nick Kristoff have so eloquently called “Half the Sky?” Ensuring equality for women in pursuing economic opportunity and political participation is essential to sustainable development.

If we are serious about addressing the food and income security of the world’s rural poor, our efforts need to begin with women. Women’s History Month, this March, presents us with a timely opportunity to take stock of continuing challenges to gender equality in the context of conservation.

Farmers in the Zambia's Luangwa Valley grow vegetables with a rural development  model linking agriculture and local markets to natural resource management. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS
Farmers in the Zambia’s Luangwa Valley grow vegetables with a rural development
model linking agriculture and local markets to natural resource management.
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

Last fall, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) released its Environment and Gender Index, which draws on data from 72 countries. The index found that we do not collect gender-specific data (short-hand for what women contribute) in a host of critical areas of our economies, including: agriculture, forestry, water, energy, marine resources, and infrastructure.

Because the folks who track these things are typically men, the failure to recognize the contribution of women may not be surprising. Yet most women and men would agree that this is, or should be, a source of concern.  How can you even evaluate the impact of a severe gender bias when you don’t have the data?

Alpaca Herder, La Paz Department, Bolivia, Greater Madidi Landscape. Credit: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS
Alpaca Herder, La Paz Department, Bolivia, Greater Madidi Landscape.
Credit: Julie Larsen Maher © WCS

The lack of data is particularly challenging because gender equality is national policy in the U.S., in many other countries, and in the international environment and development communities. Yet by and large we fail to understand how family economies and wellbeing are organized according to gender. Our ignorance limits, and in some cases undermines, the effectiveness of our investments.

The role of women is nuanced and not captured by narrowly defined measures.  For instance, even in societies where hunting and fishing are largely seen by themselves as “what men do,” in many places women are deeply involved in preparing food for the men before a hunting or fishing trip, are responsible for sharing the catch among relatives and community members, often sell the catch at the market, and prepare and cook the game or fish for family meals.

In other places, where poverty is widespread and resources are scarce, women collect fish and invertebrates from shallow waters to bring home to their families as a crucial source of nutrition for their children.

A growing body of evidence confirms that we are better resource managers when men and women make decisions together. A study of 132 forest management groups in South Asia found that those with a high proportion of women achieved greater improvements in forest condition than did men-only groups.

Community Monitor, Certified Peccary Pelt Program, Tamshiyacu Tahuayo  Regional Community Conservation Area, Loreto, Peru. Credit: Michael Painter © WCS
Community Monitor, Certified Peccary Pelt Program, Tamshiyacu Tahuayo
Regional Community Conservation Area, Loreto, Peru.
Credit: Michael Painter © WCS

Moreover, management studies by Credit Suisse and others show that firms with mixed-gender management tend to have better financial performance and be more effective in resolving conflict, than those with gender-imbalanced management (that is, too many men, or too few women).

These findings are confirmed in the group dynamics of many of the grassroots organizations and natural resource managers that WCS supports in our conservation landscapes.

In Bolivia, strengthening political authority of indigenous women by helping them have a voice in group decision-making influences how successful are efforts promote sustainable land-use, better efficiency and transparency in financial management, and negotiations to address the social and environmental impacts of infrastructure projects.

1  Women Ranger  Head of Rangers_BANP`(hi-res) JPG- reduced
Four newly hired women rangers for Band-e-Amir National Park represent a
significant milestone for Afghanistan, where only 16 percent of Afghan women
are employed in the formal economy.
Credit: Naseem Sultani © WCS

Men and women have historically played equally important roles in household economies, but too often the contribution of women has been overlooked (sometimes purposefully). While men and women do different things to make a living, to raise children, and to secure family futures, those actions work best when both genders are supportive of and accountable to one another.

As we celebrate the achievements of women across the globe this month, we must also acknowledge that gender equality still has far to go if we are to address successfully the land and resource management challenges facing our world today. Until the roles, interests, needs, and desires of men and women are equally valued and equally influence policies and practices, we will be attempting to save the planet with only half the sky.

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Elizabeth Matthews is Assistant Director of the Wildlife Conservation Society’s Marine Program. Michael Painter directs the WCS Conservation and Quality of Human Life Program. David Wilkie directs the WCS Conservation Support program.