Blog | 23 Jan, 2020

Gender and the environment: What are the barriers to gender equality in sustainable ecosystem management?

Gender equality and women’s empowerment are matters of fundamental human rights and prerequisites to meeting sustainable development goals around the world.

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Photo: NTFP-EP Cambodia, Kouy Socheat

This 4-part blog series sets out the benefits of (part 1) and barriers to (part 2 – upcoming) gender equality within sustainable ecosystem management. Part 3 (upcoming) zooms in on solutions, outlining key tools and strategies. Part 4 (upcoming) highlights examples of gender-responsive interventions. This blog sets out four benefits of ensuring women and men are effectively and equally included in sustainable ecosystem management.

gender gap is a gender-based inequality; it is any disparity in treatment or situation between women and men, often rooted in social, cultural and legal norms and customs. Gender gaps create barriers to effective sustainable development and livelihoods by limiting or restricting women’s access to resources and decision-making opportunities. In some cases, violence can be used against women as a means of control over resources and opportunities, reinforcing power imbalances and gender inequality.

Good governance in sustainable ecosystem management can only be achieved by understanding gender gaps and addressing the specific barriers. Without doing this, sustainable ecosystem management approaches risk exacerbating gender inequality to the detriment of conservation goals, community wellbeing and human rights. This blog outlines three critical gender gaps that present barriers to sustainable ecosystem management.

1. Unequal and insecure rights over land

Land is essential in securing livelihood resources, including shelter, food and income; facilitating access to decision-making power and maintaining cultural identity. Access to and secure tenure over land is also closely linked to natural resource access and management, such as water and forest resources, with benefits for sustainable ecosystems. One study from the Amazon region shows that securing land rights for Indigenous women and men contributes to reduced deforestation rates and is a cost-effective measure for climate change mitigation.

Legal and social barriers

Even though women have major roles using land for food security, income and household resources, women make up only 13.8% of landholders globally, often facing numerous legal and social barriers in all aspects of land rights – including rights to sell, manage or control the economic output from their land. Insecure land rights are a huge barrier for women in participating in or leading sustainable management efforts, as they may not have decision-making power over how land is used and managed if they do not own it. Furthermore, while women that manage land may want to adopt sustainable management approaches, if they do not have their name on the land title, they may not be able to access loans  to invest in technology and inputs.   

Traditional and cultural norms

Traditional and cultural norms can play a role in dictating who is capable of managing land, which can restrict women’s access to land even in countries where they have legal rights over it. In the Rukwa and Katavi regions of Tanzania, ActionAid Tanzania, in collaboration with LEAT, Haki Ardhi and other community-based groups, set out to shift perceptions on women’s ability to manage and own land by organizing village dialogues to raise awareness and sensitize communities on equal land rights. While cultural and societal shifts do not occur overnight, these dialogues were a necessary starting point to empower women and build acceptance within the communities, with women now actually owning their properties of land.

The importance of secure and equal land rights in sustainable ecosystem management cannot be understated.  A recent report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), reaffirmed that strengthening women’s access to and control over land improves sustainable management efforts, such as by increasing investments and willingness to engage in conservation activities, including tree planning and sustainable soil management.

2. Underrepresentation in natural resource decision making and leadership

From national governments to local community groups, women are vastly underrepresented in decision making. For instance, women make up less than 25% of all national parliamentarians around the world. This underrepresentation also extends to national environmental decision making, where women hold only 12% of top ministerial positions in environment-related sectors worldwide, as well as in district or community level committees, where women are generally underrepresented.

In many communities, cultural norms and time-intensive household care duties often impede women’s abilities to participate in community consultations and decision-making processes about sustainable management initiatives. This means that when it comes to natural resources and ecosystem management, women’s needs, priorities and knowledge are often ignored or overlooked, impacting their empowerment and agency and undermining the effectiveness of sustainable management solutions.

Transformative power

Research and experiences increasingly show the transformative power of inclusive decision making and both women’s and men’s unique differentiated knowledge in successful environmental programming and sustainable development. For example, at the national and international level, countries with more women parliamentarians are more likely to ratify environment treaties. At the community level, in India and Nepal, forest management groups that included women showed better resource governance and conservation outcomes.

Additionally, government bodies, private sector companies and organisations need to look internally and evaluate the barriers to and opportunities for inclusive decision making. A Rocha Ghana recognised the importance of gender mainstreaming in both their projects and within the institution and made the decision to develop an institutional gender policy. The first step in this process required them to conduct a gender audit to assess the barriers for staff in mainstreaming gender in projects and accessing decision making opportunities within the organisation. The results of this audit will inform a gender policy to improve conditions for inclusive organisational decision making and reaffirm institutional commitments to gender equality and women’s empowerment.    

3. Gender-based violence

Gender-based violence is pervasive around the world. Globally, 1 in 3 women will experience some form of gender-based violence in her lifetime, but national and context-specific evidence shows that incidence can be much, much higher. Rooted in discriminatory gender norms, gender-based violence is used as a form of control, subjugation and exploitation to maintain and reinforce gender inequality. Gender-based violence is a violation of basic rights and has long-term impacts on every aspect of a survivor’s life, from health and wellness to public participation and economic and political empowerment.

Complex links

The links between gender-based violence and the environment are complex, but recent research from the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) establishes a knowledge base demonstrating that gender-based violence can both be driven by and impact power imbalances in control over land and natural resources, especially when those resources are scarce or under stress.

Tactic to silence dissent

Gender-based violence has long been a tactic to silence dissent from women defending human and environmental rights and deter others from speaking out, with Indigenous women facing increased violence due to intersecting forms of discrimination. As shown by the women community leaders and activists that took part in the latest ReSisters Dialogue, these trends of violence, threats and intimidations occur across countries and contexts. However, this gathering of women defenders also shows a growing support system and resistance to these trends and a strengthened network of strong and inspiring women.

If sustainable development programmes do not consider local gender dynamics and drivers of gender-based violence, interventions can inadvertently exacerbate conditions that contribute to an increase in violence. Addressing gender-based violence across environment-related contexts and sectors is important for realizing conservation and resilience-focused interventions and advocacy, as well as for realizing human rights and peace and security. Fostering safe civic spaces, building awareness on rights and improving structural protections for women to engage in and defend their rights to environmental resources and land is essential.


Addressing barriers: consider the context

While gender gaps are a risk to effective sustainable ecosystem management, these gaps can also be addressed in sustainable management approaches through promotion of gender equality and women’s empowerment. It is important to note that gender inequality and the resulting gaps and barriers are different in every context. Therefore, any projects, programmes and strategies for sustainable ecosystem management need to be grounded in a gender and social context analysis that considers gaps, as well as opportunities to address them, specific to the context.

More information

For more information and support on gender analyses and gender mainstreaming, view the SRJS and gender tool developed by the IUCN Gender team. The tool is meant to help establish a common understanding of gender equality and social inclusion terms and issues; to help ensure that gender equality and social inclusion principles trigger concrete actions and results; and to help recognize the value of a gender-responsive, socially inclusive approach to safeguarding international public goods.

View the SJRS Gender Tool here.

This blog series was prepared by IUCN and IUCN NL and originally appears on IUCN NL. It is 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 has provided support to 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.