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.
Today is International Women’s Day, marking a call to action for accelerating gender equality.
One of the most pervasive symptoms of gender inequality is gender-based violence (GBV). GBV is any harm, or potential of harm, directed at individuals because of their biological sex, sexual orientation, or gender identity, or their apparent ‘(non-)compliance’ with socially defined expectations of behaviour for their sex.
While both women and men can and do experience GBV, it is most frequently perpetuated against women and girls. Data from the World Bank show that one in three women will experience physical or sexual violence at some time in their lives, although these figures are believed to be conservative. The increased level of violence against women and girls during the Covid-19 pandemic has been described by the UN as the ‘shadow pandemic’. GBV is probably the world’s most hidden and yet most widespread human rights violation.
Research carried out by IUCN shows how GBV is used as a form of control to promote and maintain unequal power dynamics relating to ownership of, access to, uses of, decisions around and benefits gained from natural resources. Environmental stresses, including those arising from climate change and biodiversity loss, exacerbate the potential for GBV as resources become increasingly scarce or degraded and tensions rise.
I am representing Fauna & Flora International (FFI) on a collaborative project that is breaking new ground for conservation in Kenya, working closely with Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association (KWCA). Together with CARE Kenya and the Centre for Rights Education and Awareness, and with support from the American people through USAID’s RISE Challenge, FFI and KWCA are exploring innovative ways to promote gender equity and GBV prevention in Kenya’s conservancies – defined as areas of land set aside by landowners, including communities, for the purposes of wildlife conservation.
The majority of us probably think of GBV in terms of physical or sexual violence, but it is expressed in many different ways including psychological violence and social, institutional and economic violence, discrimination and exclusion.
FFI and partners are working to increase awareness of unequal gender norms within Kenya’s conservancies. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI
Despite relying on conservancy land and resources for their daily needs, women struggle to access, influence and benefit from conservancies. Women traditionally do not own land upon which conservancy membership can depend; KWCA estimates that in all of Kenya’s 160+ conservancies, women comprise under 10% of conservancy membership.
The structures and mechanisms of conservancy decision-making serve to entrench gender biases, with women making up less than 5% of conservancy managers and 5% of conservancy committees. Men make most decisions around conservancy resources and projects and these are generally in their favour, for example prioritising individual monetary dividends over community-wide benefits, which is usually women’s preference.
Some conservancies recognise this problem and are trying to promote women’s participation in conservancy activities and decision making, for example through co-opting women onto conservancy boards and committees. However, these women report not being taken seriously and being undermined and intimidated by their male peers.
Many men, and indeed some women, believe that men should be the leaders and decision makers in conservancies, and women who do stand for election are judged harshly. According to one male conservancy manager, “The community is generally hard on women who come out to vie for [leadership] positions. They will screen her performance at family level, her private life, her relationship with in-laws, and although this happens to men too it doesn’t go as deep as for women.”
Interventions intended to promote women’s empowerment can also unintentionally result in physical and psychological abuse when they do not consider household power dynamics; in one survey over half of the women reported physical violence, verbal abuse, humiliation and intimidation by their husband due to their involvement in economic activities promoted by conservancies.
The social norms, practices and beliefs that lead to women’s marginalisation within conservancies are both perpetuated by and contribute to GBV. According to 2014 government data, 42% of Kenyans, both men and women, believe that it is acceptable for a husband to beat his wife for various reasons including if she burns the food, goes out without telling him, or refuses to have sexual intercourse. This figure increases in rural areas, where conservancies are located, and where many believe that women are subordinate to men.
Our RISE project is working with men and women from a number of conservancies to directly address such deeply held norms and beliefs, encouraging them to reflect both on a personal level and as a group, and supporting them to identify and promote more gender equitable alternatives. As one male participant stated, “I have learnt that in order to transform others I have to start with myself.”
In addition to these mixed-sex discussions we are also holding some single-sex sessions, with those for male leaders facilitated by men from the same area, who know their culture and speak their language and who have themselves challenged their own beliefs and are now championing gender equality. This has enabled male conservancy leaders to honestly and openly reflect on and discuss their personal beliefs and practices.
Other activities target female representatives from conservancies, for example sharing information and discussing what constitutes GBV, the legal and policy framework, and actions they and their conservancy colleagues can take to address it. In the words of one woman, “From this session, when in a meeting I will speak out as a [conservancy] member with power to voice my issues and not as a woman who culturally does not have the power to speak among men.”
An increase in the number of female rangers is a welcome indication that gender equality is rising up the agenda within Kenya’s conservancies. Credit: Gurveena Ghataure/FFI
Women and men have different experiences and knowledge of natural resources and biodiversity, and use and value them in different ways. Therefore, for conservation to be effective and equitable, both women and men must meaningfully participate. Our impact in addressing gender and promoting women’s empowerment within conservation will be limited unless we consider the underlying social norms, beliefs and practices that exclude women in the first place.
The #BreakTheBias theme for this year’s International Women’s Day invites us to imagine a world that is diverse, equitable and inclusive, free of bias, stereotypes and discrimination. The change we aim to make through the RISE project is transformative and ambitious. Gender equality can only be achieved over a long time frame, but we are hopeful that this exciting and innovative project will catalyse a series of small incremental changes that will deepen and widen over many years, enabling women and men to influence and benefit from their conservancies as equals and to live their lives free of violence.