Culture clash or a chance for change? Looking at the role of women in conservation

In the field of conservation it is common to come across terms such as community-based conservation, community engagement, community consultation, and working through community-based organisations.

This is great – local communities should be central to conservation – but very often a large chunk of ‘the community’ is not represented in such engagement, consultation, or organisations. Women are amongst those who are very often excluded.

I have been interested in gender equity for some time, in my current role as well as previous ones, and over the years I have heard a number of reasons given as to why we should not concern ourselves with gender.

Chief among these is that it is not our place to interfere with local culture and traditions. Indeed, I have had a project application rejected by a potential donor on the basis that it lacked sensitivity to the cultural context, despite the fact that it was co-written with a colleague of that culture with the support of both men and women from the local communities in which the project was working.

Whenever I am advised that we should not ‘interfere’ with local culture I cannot but think that whoever is telling me this is picking and choosing which elements of culture it is ok to interfere with. Many conservation actions attempt to change the way in which communities traditionally do things in order to make them more compatible with conservation aims, common examples being slash-and-burn agriculture and bushmeat hunting.

Culture includes customs, traditions and social norms, but who decides what these are and the rules that accompany them? Who decides what can and cannot be changed?

Female rangers and Moran. Credit: Veronicah Lekopole.

Two female rangers with Moran (warriors) at Sera Conservancy in northern Kenya. Credit: Veronicah Lekopole.

Stronger Together

Obviously it is important to be sensitive, but it is possible to work on gender equity without showing disrespect for local culture. Culture is not static; it is constantly evolving, influenced by a range of both external and internal factors and, very often, the desire for change actually comes from within.

One of the most interesting projects I have been involved with recently aims to increase women’s participation in decision making in community conservancies in northern Kenya. During the project it became clear that there is a widespread perception that women are not (and cannot be) good leaders or decision makers. Women themselves can be reluctant to put themselves forward as leaders.

Participants in the project shared a number of traditional Samburu sayings and stories and realised the extent to which these sustain deep-rooted myths and stereotypes that justify the roles expected of women and men.

Many sayings come from ‘the first one’, who received a letter from the Creator that is believed to have contained all that is essential to be lived and practised by Samburu people. In this area, cultural identity is clearly very important and it is culture, traditions and the associated views about what women and men can or cannot do that reinforce the myth that women cannot lead.

Many sayings come from the first one

Many traditional Samburu sayings come from ‘the first one’.

Many of the rangers employed by community conservancies in northern Kenya are Moran (warriors). During the project one young ranger clearly felt that women had little to contribute to conservation, saying, “When women talk to us it is like they are singing.”

Another, referring to conflicts over grazing that often blight this region stated, “The smoke from gunfire is not the same as smoke from a kitchen fire,” making it clear where he felt women’s concerns should lie.

Despite such seemingly prevailing attitudes, there are plenty of men and women who are keen to see women taking a more active role in conservation. Last year, Veronicah Lesasuyian, one of only two female rangers at Sera Conservancy in northern Kenya was promoted to become the first female Corporal Ranger.

When some Moran were subsequently recruited and reported to work they were shocked to learn that their boss was a woman. Some swore never to salute a woman and others even considered leaving their job. Over time, however, there has apparently been a transformation in the behaviour of Moran living in the rangers’ camp, not only in saluting a woman but also cooking and serving meals.

Samburu man. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Samburu man. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI.

Just a few years ago it would have been unthinkable for a woman to have a leadership role in these communities, but in recent years two have been elected to lead conservancies and Moran are now working for a female manager. Veronicah and the rangers say that they would like Sera to be a positive example for other conservancies, where the contributions of women are recognised and their ‘songs’ are valued.

Relationships between men and women and the roles and responsibilities each are expected to fulfil are shaped by culture, but ‘local culture’ is not one single set of traditions and practices that everyone in a community agrees with. All cultures are dynamic, with attitudes and practices evolving over time.

In the communities of Sera Conservancy, while there are both men and women who believe that women do not make good leaders or have little to contribute to decision making, there are also people of both genders who are working for exactly this. Veronicah and the rangers who support her are amongst those who are proud to be Samburu whilst working for change in their communities.