Be bold for change is this year’s theme for International Women’s Day, which is highly relevant, as later this month I will be working with colleagues to address the under-representation of women at a capacity development workshop. In previous events, far fewer women than men have participated, despite being invited, so the forthcoming workshop has been organised specifically for women. All the women attending hold leadership roles in their organisations, and during the workshop we will discuss the barriers and opportunities that they have faced. Being a female leader in what has traditionally been a male domain does indeed require a certain amount of boldness.

Participation in conservation projects on the ground is also gendered. Men commonly have more decision making power within their communities than do women, they are more likely to own land, livestock, equipment and other resources than women, and their roles as farmers, fishers, or foresters, for example, are more visible even though women are also farmers, fishers and foresters. Men have thus traditionally been viewed as the ‘natural’ partners in conservation and so men have, generally, participated in and benefited from conservation activities more than women.

Conservation organisations have become increasingly aware of the marginalisation of women and have tried to counter this. Women’s participation in projects has been encouraged and activities targeting women have been undertaken, focusing in particular on their economic empowerment. These efforts are laudable, but need to be undertaken with care.

The unintended consequences of empowering women

Supporting projects that specifically target women, whether they have an explicit objective to empower women or not, can lead to some unexpected outcomes. For example, as women gain more control over economic resources they may be more likely to experience domestic violence as household power dynamics are disturbed. I recall reading about a fish smoking project in Mozambique that aimed to increase women’s income by providing ovens that were more fuel efficient and enabled a larger number of fish to be smoked. The women bought the fish that they smoked from male fishers. These fishers saw women benefiting from external support and responded by raising their prices, negating any financial gains made by the women due to the project’s support.

A colleague of mine has recently returned from Guinea where she was told by women farmers that activities that were traditionally the responsibility of their husbands on their household plots, such as clearing the land and cutting trees, is now their responsibility and they have to pay their husbands to carry out this work. It may be that this situation arose in response to the interventions of a previous project. As we develop our work here we will seek to better understand the context and the community, including the gender dynamics, and plan and implement activities with the active involvement of both men and women.

Many projects that aim to bring about change tend to focus on the more formal aspects, such as policies or rules, as well as resources including economic empowerment. However it is equally important to consider the more informal aspects of change, such as social norms – the unwritten rules around behaviours expected of both men and women. Social norms are not changed easily, quickly or in response to isolated interventions, and it doesn’t happen without action by men as well as women.

Men must be bold for change too

Men who promote gender equality can find themselves challenging widely accepted social norms, and may need to be bold to do so. During discussions with men and women in community conservancies in northern Kenya we were told that men who readily allow their wives to participate in projects are very often teased or even bullied by their peers. Those men who support or agree with their wives, or who are perceived to have given leeway to them, are said to be led by a woman in the way that women lead donkeys by a string tied through their nose. “Kumbung’a nkumeshin” (She holds you by the nose).

Discussing the relations between men and women in their communities, and the different opportunities and challenges they face, has given these men and women the confidence to work together for greater gender equality. Some of the men told us that they now felt more assured to talk about what are perceived to be ‘women issues’ and are able to respond when other men ask them “Itaa iyie ngoriei?” (Are you now a woman?).

Men and boys are increasingly realising the benefits of gender equality, as evidenced by movements that aim to engage them in promoting gender quality in their own countries and communities, such as MenEngage, an alliance of NGOs working worldwide, and the UN’s HeForShe campaign.

During his visit to Kenya in 2015, President Barack Obama gave a speech in a crowded stadium in Nairobi. He talked about the need for change, including the treatment of women and girls as second-class citizens, and said that success requires that daughters are given the same opportunities as sons. Biodiversity conservation and gender equality both require men and women to effect change and to act together.

As Obama said, “Imagine if you have a team and you don’t let half of the team play. That’s stupid. That makes no sense.”

Cover photo: Both women and men involved in participatory data analysis for forest management in Tanzania. Credit: Lizzie Wilder/FFI.