When Nobel Peace Prize laureate Wangari Maathai turned her attention to the state of the environment in Kenya in 1977, she began with a tool that had been previously overlooked by conservationists. That tool was the power of women as agents of change. With the support of local Kenyan women, Maathai’s Greenbelt Movement was revolutionary in forwarding two tightly intertwined issues: women’s rights, and environmental conservation.
Following the seeds that Maathai planted, women’s rights and the environment are at the forefront of conservation today, especially in community-centric conservation like the Jane Goodall Institute’s Sustainable Livelihoods project. The relationship between women’s rights and the environment is strong, and reciprocal: conservation programs help draw attention to women’s rights, and programs to improve the lives of women contribute to conservation goals.
Including women as participants and planners in conservation programs encourages empowerment, and brings women’s issues to the attention of the community. Making women leaders of conservation and change also lays down the roots for women to become leaders in other areas of the community, and starts the wheel turning to redefine strict gender roles (Sodhi, Davidar & Rao, 2010). Educating women and encouraging their participation is also one of the best ways we can ensure that future generations will continue the trend of empowerment and conservation action. This is because women are most influential in teaching their children, and the more mothers teach and participate, the more likely their children are to do the same.
In terms of furthering conservation, including women in community conservation initiatives means so much more than just the increased power behind a movement that fully engages all members of a community. Addressing women’s rights and equality through issues like women’s access to education, healthcare, and family planning actively works towards conservation goals. This is because these goals promote smaller, healthier families (which in and of itself reduces the human burden on the environment), allowing women to participate more fully in conservation and community development programs (Sodhi, Davidar & Rao, 2010). The Jane Goodall Institute’s Better Beginnings, Stronger Families project, which seeks to improve community level health and education in the Democratic Republic of Congo, is a perfect example of how the power of improving livelihoods – and especially the livelihoods of women – can strengthen the community’s ability to achieve conservation goals.
Beyond all this, understanding the relationship that women have with the environment can help us better formulate strong conservation goals. Women interact with the environment differently than men. The division of labor in many countries across the globe is such that women depend on forest products like firewood, medicines, and foods more than men, and are responsible for collecting these resources (Agarwal, 2009). Because of this, women carry different knowledge about the forest, and have different conservation goals that reflect their specific needs and wants from the environment. By understanding and addressing gender specific environmental concerns, community conservation initiatives are more likely to create and achieve a conservation picture that represents the whole ecosystem and all its important components.
With all this talk about the role of women in community-centric conservation, it’s important not to lose sight of our responsibility as women (and girls) globally to support these initiatives. Although our part may not involve tree planting, it certainly can involve teaching. The more visible women are in conservation and environmental sciences, the more likely other women are to become involved (Sodhi, Davidar & Rao, 2010). Often times, female conservationists in the field are able to communicate and investigate the role of local women in conservation from a point of view that is inaccessible to male conservationists, as a result of gender roles that prevent women from communicating their ideas to men (Sodhi, Davidar & Rao, 2010). But whether at home or in the field, it is important for us as women to take an active role in conservation and support women everywhere as we strengthen the relationship between gender equality and conservation globally.
Agarwal, B. (2009) Gender and forest conservation: The impact of women’s participation in community forest governance. Ecological Economics 68:2785-2799
Sodhi, Davidar & Rao (2010) Empowering women through conservation. Biological Conservation 143:1035-1036