Notes from the Field
Nepal is a country with a long history of forest conservation and sustainable use, managed by communities. I was recently visiting communities in its southern belt, the Terai area, to listen to the voices of community groups, comprised of both men and women, for an assignment to develop a gender action plan for the country’s REDD+ (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation) program, supported by the World Bank’s Forest Carbon Partnership Facility.
Though I spent many years working in communities of rural Nepal, where I had been acutely aware of the extraordinary demands on women’s time and labor, I was struck by a comment made by one woman during this recent visit to the Terai: that the ‘successful’ forest management initiatives so widely acclaimed were heavily reliant on the labor of women that is uncompensated, while their menfolk are free to seek income and to learn of the larger world, outside the home and community.
It was evident in these community consultations that women are often silenced by the voices of powerful men in charge of forest planning. Many experts and donors say that paying attention to these issues is not relevant to sustainable forest management and to REDD+, that a focus on gender issues is irrelevant to sustainable forest management. But how can forest and REDD investments be secured, and provide confidence to investors under these conditions, when providers of the labor and care of forests are not valued and compensated? And when these same women are still spending 2-3 hours/day, collecting and carrying large loads of fuelwood and grass – tasks that men will not do; chores that are not only back-breaking, but that deny them opportunities to rest, to take care of their health, to attend training that could broader their knowledge and skills, provide them with new ways of imaging themselves in the world?
Without assuring women benefits, forest planners and investors are gambling on women’s continual and quiet compliance with age-old systems of injustice, of reliance on women’s free labor that binds them to their homes, fields and communities while men are free and unencumbered to seek paid employment and new horizons, beyond the village boundaries.
Sustainable development is possible only through women’s labor and knowledge – fact finally recognized and articulated by the inclusion of gender and women’s empowerment as a goal of the Sustainable Development Goals. Women’s empowerment starts with valuing their contributions to sustainable development, and by relieving them of at least some of the burdens that bind them to their traditional gender roles. A recent report calculated that 12 trillion USD could be realized by narrowing the gender gap: surely compensating women for their care and maintenance of the planet’s forests, and assuring a better quality of life for them would be worthwhile investments that generate multiplier effects on the environment and on the sustenance of communities.