The theme of this year’s International Women’s Day is Balance for Better. This means balancing not just the numbers, but also the power.

Those who have read my previous blogs will know that I am particularly interested in social and cultural norms, especially those that prescribe what it means to be a man or a woman in any given community or society and how this relates to conservation. Improving laws or policies, and increasing women’s presence in decision-making forums is, of course, an essential step towards gender equality, but we cannot shy away from the underlying power dynamics reflected in and through social norms.

Through her work with forest management groups in India and Nepal, Bina Argawal has shown how women’s participation in natural resource management groups leads to improved conservation and social outcomes. But this participation must go beyond the nominal or passive, to be interactive and empowering, so that women as well as men hold positions as office bearers and have voice and influence in decision making.

Credit: Luis Vidal
A question of balance – Is gender equality just around the corner? Credit: Luis Vidal

Of course, it would be simplistic to assume that all men are powerful and that all women are disempowered.  Within conservation there is increasing interest in the concept of intersectionality, in recognition of the fact that gender intersects with other aspects of social differentiation. In his essay on African feminism, Mukoma Wa Ngugi writes “in either lamenting gender inequality or in applauding the important strides toward gender [equality] we fail to see its connection to class and poverty.”

He also writes about ‘cultural purists’ who, he says, believe that inequality between women and men represents the ‘natural order’ and is part of African culture. “The problem is: who decides what is African culture and what is not? The only thing that culture guarantees is that it will change and is dynamic.”

Interestingly, research shows that early men and women were more equal and that present-day hunter-gatherer societies are also more equal than the societies around them. It is suggested that gender equality has, in fact, been the norm for most of human evolutionary history, and that inequalities emerged with the advent of agriculture that enabled the accumulation of resources. Thus, patriarchy developed.

Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI
Inequality between women and men is viewed by some as the cultural norm in Africa, but who decides what is African culture? Credit: Jeremy Holden/FFI

Given that last year’s theme for International Women’s Day was Press for Progress, we are entitled to ask what progress has been made towards gender equality. Leaving aside the recent debacle in the United Arab Emirates – where all the recipients of its 2018 gender balance awards were men – the answer is some, globally at least. According to the World Economic Forum’s 2018 Global Gender Gap Report, based on data from 106 countries and projecting current trends into the future, it will take 108 years for the overall gender gap to close. In 2017, gender parity was reported to be 217 years away (based on data from 144 countries).

Of course, these global figures hide differences across regions and thematic areas. The largest gender disparity is reported to be in political empowerment, and here the positive trend has started to reverse; revealingly, this is due to reduced gender parity in western countries.

In November I was involved in a webinar entitled ‘Gender and biodiversity conservation – progress and future directions’. I think all the presenters involved would agree that much progress has been made over the past 15 years but, as a sector, we still have far to go.

Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI
Balancing act – Dad does the school run. Credit: Juan Pablo Moreiras/FFI

Here at Fauna & Flora International (FFI), we are in the process of finalising a formal position on gender and conservation, along with a plan of how to put this into action. In all sectors and at any level developing a policy is the easy part; ensuring that it is actually implemented is a little trickier. The World Bank reports “great progress towards legal gender equality over the past decade”, with 274 reforms in laws and regulations in 131 economies. However, it also acknowledges that more than legal changes are required: “The laws need to be meaningfully implemented – and this requires sustained political will, leadership from women and men across societies, and changes to ingrained cultural norms and attitudes.”

Promoting gender and social equality is not easy and it will not be achieved overnight, but it is something towards which we can all contribute. We can start by thinking about and challenging our own biases, language and behaviour. According to the International Women’s Day campaign pages, “Everyone has a part to play – all the time, everywhere.” #BalanceforBetter