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Conservation and gender

Written by: Helen Anthem
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What is gender?

Gender is the term used to describe the culturally and socially given attributes, roles, activities and responsibilities associated with being male or female. As we grow up we are taught – by our parents, schools, the media, society at large – how to ‘be’ male or female, thus gender is learnt. It also changes over time and varies between communities.

Current conservation practice

Conservation NGOs working in developing countries are increasingly recognising and analysing the links between poverty and conservation. FFI’s position states that ‘FFI will endeavour to ensure that its conservation activities do not disadvantage or undermine poor, vulnerable or marginalised people who are dependent upon or live adjacent to natural resources, and wherever possible will seek to conserve biodiversity in ways that enhance their wellbeing and social equity’.

It is widely accepted within the development sector that gender is an important dimension of poverty and that women tend to be poorer, more vulnerable and more marginalised than men.  However relatively few conservation organisations have proactively promoted a consideration of gender or the empowerment of women in their programmes, despite a number of international commitments.

Why gender is relevant to conservation

The exclusion – or lack of participation – of women in decision making over conservation and natural resource management can have implications for conservation outcomes because of their different roles and relationships with natural resources and their different knowledge of biodiversity.

For example in many countries women are often the prime collectors of herbs, spices and medicinal plants because they are responsible for their families’ health and for preparing meals.

The participation of men and women in conservation projects

Research has shown that generally, men participate in – and thus benefit from – conservation activities more than women, including those related to project decision making.  The need to consider gender is fairly widely accepted, but there is a lack of awareness of how to go about this.

Many projects do try to take a ‘gender sensitive’ approach – including women in meetings, holding separate meetings, collecting gender disaggregated data and so on – but such activities are often based on limited analysis and understanding.

Women are often excluded from decision making structures which, at all levels, tend to be dominated by men. Other major constraints include women’s workloads and poverty, such that they don’t have time or resources to invest in conservation and are forced to prioritise according to short-term needs. Women’s levels of education or awareness can also be a major constraint.

Moving forward

It is important to analyse not only who uses what but also the nature of gender and other social relations, and to recognise that these change over time. We need to better understand how changes in gender relations affect natural resource management, and how natural resource management impacts on social dynamics, including gender relations.

Evidence suggests that projects are more efficient and effective in achieving conservation goals if a gender-responsive approach is employed.  Moreover, in order to ensure that conservation activities do not disadvantage or undermine poor, vulnerable or marginalised people it is essential that more attention is given to gender.

Written by
Helen Anthem

Helen has a Masters degree in Development Studies and an Advanced Diploma in Environmental Conservation. Prior to joining FFI, Helen worked in the development sector and is particularly interested in participatory approaches within conservation, including a consideration of gender and empowerment.

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