Barry Aliman bikes with her son to fetch water near her village near Boromo, Burkina Faso. Ollivier Girard, CIFOR

Gender discrepancies in rural development and restoration

CIFOR’s Markus Ihalainen on progress for women

In honor of this year’s International Day of Rural Women, celebrated on October 15, Landscape News spoke to Nairobi-based Markus Ihalainen, a researcher at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) Equal Opportunities, Gender, Justice and Tenure program. We discussed some of the specific issues that rural women in developing countries face, as well as how these interlink with efforts toward reforestation and climate change adaptation.

Why do we need an International Day of Rural Women?

A: I think that even though the structures and relationships behind gender inequalities are similar [for rural and urban women], a lot of the specific issues are different. In more general forums on women’s issues, the things that concern women in rural areas often get less attention.

What are some of the key issues for rural women in developing countries?

The big one is land and property rights. Livelihoods in rural areas are very much connected to land, so the questions of who owns it and who gets to make decisions about different land uses are really critical. Women are often disadvantaged in that sense: they own and control less of the land, and they’re seldom key decision-makers on farms or in forests. That links to a lot of other issues, too. For example, when you don’t have access to land, you’re disadvantaged when you try to apply for credit. And when you don’t control the land, you have less control over the income that it generates.

Are you seeing progress on these issues in your areas of work?

In terms of big changes in things like land ownership, I think there are some pockets of progress, but in general it has been very slow. It’s also extremely contextual and affected by the other things that are going on in an area. These global pushes toward gender equality and restoration can have very different impacts at the local level depending on the context, as well as on the way that initiatives are being delivered. So it’s quite difficult to say, at a broad scale, whether things are getting better or worse.

What are some of the ways that climate change is already affecting rural women’s lives in developing countries?

There’s an interesting example of this in our research in Zambia. A recent drought caused a shortage in the hydropower supply, which meant that the major urban centers had to implement load-shedding and have electricity for only some hours of the day. As a result, demand for charcoal increased dramatically. At the same time, the drought was reducing the profitability of traditional agriculture.

So, an increasing number of women began entering the trade in charcoal production, which was traditionally a male-coded thing. You can see here that climate change is pushing more women to take on roles in all-male value chains. This can contribute to changing gender norms: in this case, many women said that because charcoal production requires lot of physical strength, they were showing men what they were capable of, and they felt proud about that. And because they were generating income, they also had more decision-making power within their households.

But then at the same time, women’s involvement was not on the same terms as the men’s. Their ability to participate was limited by their access to trees and ability to be involved in decision-making processes. A lot of women we talked to also said they were stigmatized because of their involvement in an act that was seen as “dirty.” There were cases of sexual exploitation by charcoal transporters, too. So, again, it’s very contextual in terms of how climate change impacts gender equality, and how gender impacts the ways that climate change adaptation plays out.

What are some of the ways that gender issues impact forest landscape restoration (FLR)?

There’s a fundamental link between gender equality and restoration. In our research team, we did the gender analysis for the Kenyan government’s national forest landscape restoration strategy, and we looked at the gender dynamics within four different cases of restoration.

Again, the tenure issue comes up here very, very strongly: in all of the cases we looked at, the right to harvest full-grown trees was reserved to older men. However, a major share of the labor required for implementing the restoration initiatives was done by women. So their labor was really critical, but the long-term benefits – in terms of the timber that these trees could generate – were reserved for men.

What usually happens in this kind of restoration work is that implementers employ a cost-benefit analysis to try to convince landowners to use different practices on their land. And I think what’s been really critical to acknowledge is that when you don’t include a gender perspective in that analysis, you miss the fact that a lot of the costs and benefits are differentiated within the household. And in the long run, that will impact the sustainability and the uptake of these practices, because when people don’t see how they benefit from a new practice, they’ll be much less willing to adopt it.

We can’t continue discussing gender as a side component to FLR. It needs to feature in these core analyses, not only because if you don’t consider it, you will exacerbate the inequalities that are already there, but also because you’re risking the long-term sustainability and efficiency of what you plan to do.


To realize the Sustainable Development Goals, focus on rural women

For Sub-Saharan rural women, making tree-planting worth their sweat

Recognizing gender bias, restoring forests

Moving past “zombie statistics” for gender-equitable tenure

Restoring land in Africa an opportunity for women’s rights, says president of women’s forest network




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