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Regional themes > Gender Last update: 2020-11-27  

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'Engendering' Eden: Summary Document

Executive summary
The conservation movement finds its roots in attempts to protect threatened colonies and their resources from both colonial powers and indigenous peoples. It was led by men: European men, many of who were ex-hunters. Women (colonised and colonial) played little role in the conservation processes: they were marginalised and dominated. Today, as conservation moves increasingly to more community-based initiatives and those 'integrated' with the development of local communities, there is also a focus on the achievement of more equitable - particularly gender equitable - conservation. However there is inexperience and a lack of knowledge how to accomplish this. The ‘Engendering’ Eden programme attempted to fill some of these existing gaps, achieve a better understanding of the linkages between gender equity and conservation and development, and to indicate ways forward.

This document summarises the key issues that have been identified through the extensive research carried out over two years, including case study work on ICDPs (Integrated Conservation and Development Projects) in Africa and Asia. Two regional studies have also been produced detailing the case studies and other examples. This document draws out the experiences and lessons learnt from them. Men and women in both Africa and Asia and particularly those from poorer households can still be highly dependent on the collection of natural resources to fulfil household needs and contribute to food security and poverty alleviation. The collection of such resources is gender differentiated in relation to socio-economical, cultural, ethnic and geographical contexts.

However, in general women’s share of decision-making power at both macro and micro levels remains low: it is dominated by men. In addition women have less access to resources and fewer opportunities to improve their lives. In Africa in particular there is a lack of organised platforms from which to address women’s issues. However women, rather than men, tend to be keener to form cooperatives and mobilise themselves as a group to share responsibilities, provide support, and even to initiate change. Many have seen the advantage of ‘group power’.

With a few rare exceptions, more women are illiterate than men. This can compromise their ability to make the most of the opportunities that development and conservation processes offer. In addition though women may have a good knowledge concerning the resources that they use, they tend to have a poorer understanding of environmental processes and the long-term impact of unsustainable use.

Poverty and pressures to fulfil daily household needs are major constraints for women in terms of finding time or resources to invest in conservation and environmental practices. Women are often forced to prioritise on a short-term basis. This tends to conflict directly with conservation and environmental objectives that are more long-term in nature. Few ICDPs in both Africa and Asia have actively addressed gender issues. Though it has been realised that women are 'missing out' from ICDPs there has been a lack of experience and knowledge concerning how to tackle this. There has been a reliance on addressing problems in a haphazard and uninformed way as they arise, or on the enthusiasm and concerns of individuals. Interventions in the past have mainly focussed on 'women's projects' which have been seen as the means of overcoming the inequities that exist. These have included projects for health provision and family planning; income generation; and credit and savings.

However, these project components tend to be considered of secondary importance to ICDPs' main activities. Their budget allocation is scarce and there has been a lack of investment in necessary training and capacity building. Few projects have made any real impact on the achievement of protected area objectives and have failed to link the conservation of resources with local development processes. And though in some cases women have benefited economically and, in fewer instances, socially, this targeting of women without understanding 'gender' has had a number of adverse impacts. These include:

  • Misunderstanding and mistrust between conservation authorities, development organisations and communities, particularly women.
  • Conflicting needs and priorities and a lack of participation, particularly of women.
  • Misunderstanding and overlooking of women’s roles, rights and responsibilities.
  • Increased gender inequalities.
More recently ICDPs have realised the need to focus more directly on activities that are gender-focussed rather than women-focussed. These have included elements that attempt to increase women's empowerment through, for example, education, training, capacity building and supporting women's collective action through establishing groups. However, though in some cases attempts have been made to link these activities to the conservation of resources and environmental management, in general, 'gender' still tends to be tackled as a separate component with no connection to the different areas of projects' basic activities.

This treatment continues to fragment and isolate gender issues, whilst often requiring additional resources. It is unlikely that such efforts can have a real impact on addressing gender inequity and the relations of subordination that may exist as they allow little room for positive transformation processes. In addition there remains widespread misunderstanding of what gender really means and what impacts it has on participation in ICDPs and the distribution of benefits from them. In general, gender is still seen as an issue that is too political, too sensitive and too time- and resource-consuming for inclusion.

As such, there is, as yet, little evidence to suggest that ICDPs have contributed to more equitable long-term development in local communities. Though there have been some positive results in, for example, the establishment of women user groups; increasing the number of women participating in conservation activities and to some extent, in increasing women's benefits, it remains the case that communities, and particularly women, fail to understand and/or support the conservation-development concept that is the central crux of ICDPs. As such the long-term sustainability of ICDPs must continue to be questioned and doubts remain concerning whether, in reality, ICDPs can work.

Despite this the lack of current alternatives means that the ICDP concept continues to be invested in as the means to resolve the conflicts between conservation and communities (including women). If women's valuable contribution to their success is to be fully recognised and the constraints that gender contributes to are to be overcome then several key elements must be addressed. These include the need for:

  • A long time-frame.
  • The securing of women's access to resources and decision-making processes.
  • A holistic, integrated, strategic, participatory and well thought-out approach.
  • A focus on the use of all resources, not just wildlife.
  • The de-mystifying, de-threatening and mainstreaming of ‘gender’.
  • The establishment of partnerships and collaborations.
If ICDPs are to be truly community-based then the gender inequities found in communities and institutions must be understood, recognised and where opportunities exist, addressed. Though this may involve tackling sensitive issues such as ‘power relations’, it may be the only way forward to move beyond the lip-service paid to addressing women's needs, rights and responsibilities that has been seen so far.

In addition, there is a continued failure (excluding rare examples) of local communities (both women and men) making the necessary link between their development and the conservation of natural resources, as well as rights to, and responsibilities over, such resources. This undermines the whole premise on which ICDPs have been built and therefore questions the entire ICDP approach. Unless more effort and resources are put into building up this link then ICDPs will not be sustainable.

At the same time ICDPs must not work in a vacuum but understand the relationships and linkages between the projects and 'external' factors including social, political, cultural and economic pressures and/or change. Adaptability, flexibility and a long-term focus are vital. Issues such as gender equity cannot be addressed over night but require commitment, time, resources and sensitive, well-informed interventions or support.

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