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Why we need women leaders in conservation

Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, the former president of Liberia and Patron of the African Protected Areas Congress, calls for greater diversity in the protection of the world’s wild spaces

Women make up the backbone of society. Nowhere is this truer than in rural Africa, where the so-called ‘lesser sex’ takes on the bulk of the childrearing, housekeeping and income earning. According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women make up 70 percent of Africa’s agricultural workforce and grow 90 percent of the food.

Since time immemorial, women have played a significant role in safeguarding the natural resources on which they and future generations are dependent. At a time when social constructs had designated this all-important role to women, it was a badge that our mothers and grandmothers wore proudly, and the numerous benefits can be felt all around us.

Women are both highly dependent on ecological goods and services and highly vulnerable to environmental degradation and crisis. They make multiple choices every day that affect the environment. Most women in sub-Saharan Africa have traditional responsibilities as food growers, water and fuel gatherers, and caregivers. The gender-specific division of labour in rural agricultural societies means that many negative environmental effects are confined to women.

Yet despite their significant contributions to their households, their communities and the economy, women’s voices are noticeably absent from discussions on Africa’s development. It is time to make our voices heard.

The effects and impact of feminism is beginning to take shape. Today, we are beginning to see more women in more decision-making and leadership roles. I am one among a handful of female heads of state in Africa. While this has advanced in multiple fields there still remains a big gap in the conservation sector that needs the all-important female advocate voice.

We must realize that any discussion about leadership and gender must recognize that gender inequalities operate within many socially constructed systems of privilege that control individuals’ access to power, knowledge, and resources.

A plethora of evidence of gender inequality exists across the globe. Women were historically excluded from many leadership positions, and gender parity has yet to be reached at the top of many occupations.

As it stands, there is no question that women are on the frontline of positive transformation around the world. Africa remains a global leader in women’s public leadership: five African countries are in the top 20 nations for women’s parliamentary representation, and, at 60 percent, Rwanda still leads the world in terms of women in parliament. Four African countries, each with over 45 percent women’s representation in cabinets, are among the top 20 countries globally.

Moreover, African women’s growing presence as public leaders is not confined to national institutions, and African women now hold leadership positions in the World Trade Organisation, African Union, and United Nations, among others.

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic could reverse the progress that has been made on gender equality and women’s rights. The pandemic exacerbated existing inequalities for women and girls across every sphere – from education to health, the economy to security, and from social protection to conservation.

Women are not only the hardest hit by this pandemic, but they are also the backbone of recovery in communities. Putting women and girls at the centre of economies will fundamentally drive better and more sustainable development outcomes for all, support a more rapid recovery, and place the world back on a footing to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals.

At the same time, unplanned development in areas rich in natural resources will harm Africa’s rural women first, for they are the ones who rely most on these resources in their daily lives. But they are also the ones best positioned to contribute valuable insight on the urbanization transforming the continent.

Women in sub-Saharan Africa, for example, are the primary water collectors in their communities. As African communities grapple with the effects of climate change including water shortages, women may be burdened with extra responsibilities, including walking for increasingly longer distances to reach clean water, or keeping girls home from school to help with water collection duties.

Dwindling resources and widespread drought are also responsible for migration and displacement, the effects of which can have dire consequences for women and girls, who face more gender-based violence and exploitation due to displacement.

It is no secret that the key to developing effective solutions to any problem is looking at it from multiple angles and perspectives. In the same vein, if we are to create a truly vibrant African conservation sector which produces dynamic and effective solutions to our significant conservation challenges, governments and conservation groups need to put in place measures to ensure that we look at problems in multiple and complex ways.

At the community level, the establishment of conservancies has created opportunities while also safeguarding wildlife corridors and connecting protected areas, but rural women may not be able to reap the benefits because they are not the recognized owners of the land.

At the same time, few women engage at the governance level of conservancies, typically held back by their traditional gender designated roles at the household, while men continue to occupy leadership roles from the household level to governance spaces at the community level.

Despite women being disproportionately affected by climate change, they play a crucial role in climate change adaptation and mitigation. Women have the knowledge and understanding of what is needed to adapt to changing environmental conditions and to come up with practical solutions.

But they are still a largely untapped resource. Restricted land rights, lack of access to financial resources, training and technology, and limited access to political decision making spheres often prevent them from playing a full role in tackling climate change and other environmental challenges.

Unleashing the knowledge and capability of women represents an important opportunity to craft effective climate change solutions for the benefit of all

The conservation sector has historically been disadvantaged in this respect given that it has been male dominated; its systems and cultures still bear the marks of this singular dimensionality and its outputs have undoubtedly been poorer for it.

The upcoming inaugural African Protected Areas Congress (APAC) that is slated for July 2022 in Kigali will provide a great platform for women leaders in conservation to articulate our challenges and therefore front solutions that will enhance conservation practices for women in rural areas.

Women form a greater share of the population of indigenous people and local communities in Africa and are by extension, the critical decision makers – shareholders and not just stakeholders – who must have greater urgency, dignity and rights to make decisions about the resources and benefits that may accrue from the sustainable management of biodiversity.

While things are gradually changing, the sector continues to create obstacles for women’s involvement at all levels. Involving women in conservation for gender equality reasons is important in and of itself, but equality rhetoric should not obscure the often-unique positions and approaches through which women can bring about meaningful and durable conservation solutions.

At national and subnational levels, important steps forward include the design and planning of policies, programmes and projects, as well as financing, implementation, and monitoring and evaluation. In particular, investing in participatory, multistakeholder and multi-sectoral Conservation and Environmental Gender Action Plans can help countries to develop comprehensive action that integrates gender concerns and builds on women’s unique knowledge and perspectives.

As we prepare for a more inclusive modern Africa in the road leading to APAC in Kigali this July, I look forward to engaging in constructive and levelling conversations on improving women representation in the conservations sector and in Africa. In this day and time, achieving gender parity and representation in all fora must be top of mind.

I take this opportunity to encourage us all from global organizations, private sector and African governments to consider spaces for dialogues for and on the role of women, recognize women conservation leaders, ensure their participation across the board in all programs, ensure women are participating in setting the agenda and in drafting of the outcomes of the congress such as these.

It is past time for conservation organization to lead by example by placing the role of women in conservation at the forefront of the conservation agenda – not only for themselves but for the sake of Africa’s future.

Source: Independent