Dr. Teri Allendorf’s advice on how to get women involved in conservation projects around the world
During my most recent trip to Peru, Nestor, the director of our partner organization, Neotropical Primate Conservation (NPC), mentioned over lunch at the local vegetarian restaurant how difficult it can be to interact with women in the communities. For example, the women mostly stay in the kitchen while the NPC team has dinner with the men. Lorena, NPC’s program manager, also described how difficult it is for her, even as a woman, to know how to include more women in their conservation activities.
As a woman conservation professional who’s worked with communities for over 30 years in Nepal, Myanmar, China, and India, I can relate. But over the years I’ve found some useful ways of reaching and including women in conservation work. I’m sharing them here in hopes that they’ll be helpful to other conservationists.
Including women in conservation activities is important. They’re half the population and, as they say, women “hold up half the sky.” Conservation and development are not sustainable if half the population is not participating.
Women also have different access to knowledge and information because they are often left out of meetings and gatherings where natural resource information is shared and decisions get made. When women are included in management of natural resources, group processes are more effective and natural resources are in better condition.
Different Countries, Different Issues
Incorporating women into conservation can be challenging in any country. Much of my work is in Nepal, where they have made substantial progress in this area but there is still a long way to go. For example, there are guidelines for women’s representation in local government, including community forestry committees, but women in practice are still underrepresented.
In my home country of the USA, there are also gender differences. For example, it is hard to get equal participation from women and men when conducting mail-in wildlife surveys because women will often defer to their husbands to answer them.
One issue facing Peru are the different policies that apply to native (indigenous) and peasant (campesino) communities. Native indigenous communities are considered legal collectives treated as a single entity by the state, which means women in these communities are not guaranteed equal rights under law, unlike other women in Peru. This lack of recognition of indigenous women’s rights makes it difficult to formalize the participation of indigenous women in community decision-making around communal resources.
Bring it up… often
While national and local contexts are very important, the ways we can include women in conservation are fairly universal. One way is to increase people’s awareness by talking about gender and the inclusion of women with everyone, government, nonprofits, universities, and communities, whenever there is an opportunity.
I often share my experiences from Nepal, where, although it is extremely patriarchal, it has progressive gender policies. The government has provisions for 50% of community forest executive committees to be women and requires that one male and female from each household must be registered members of forest user groups. I initially convinced our Myanmar partner, Friends of Wildlife, about the importance of including women in all meetings by describing Nepal’s policies.
Just by talking about the issue and providing some good examples of why it is important, you will find men who understand and support women’s involvement, and you will signal to women that they can talk with you about the issue. Often you will find there are women who try to talk at meetings or who, while serving dinner, interject their ideas into the conservation they’re overhearing.
Go where the women are
You can join women in their activities to begin a conversation. In the scenario where women are cooking in one room and men are in the other room at a conservation-related meeting, I will go into the kitchen and ask the women what they think about what’s going on in the other room, or about a meeting or an activity.
As a woman, it is easier for me to enter “women’s spaces” like the kitchen, but I also have male colleagues who are skilled at this. And when they include women, they are modeling behavior for other men. Nestor from NPC in Peru participates in cooking in the community – an excellent way to get access and start conversations with women!
At meetings, where women may be in the back of the room, or just outside the door, but not participating, facilitators can ask the men to make physical space for women in the room, or specifically ask women for their thoughts to bring them into the conversation. Sometimes women are hesitant to speak but often they just haven’t been given the chance. Even if they are unwilling to speak publicly, that’s okay. The door has been opened and they may approach you later once they know their opinions are important to you also.
Get them to the table
While there are great resources for incorporating gender into conservation, like this one and this one, it can be difficult to know how to operationalize gender inclusivity day-to-day, like when holding a meeting. Here are some specific recommendations for including women in meetings.
Help women come to the meeting:
- Have meetings at times that are convenient for women.
- Have meeting places that are convenient and comfortable for women.
- Plan transportation options for women.
- Provide childcare during meetings.
- Provide meals for families during meetings.
- Aim for 50% participation by women, and at minimum of 30%.
- Encourage or require women’s participation in the invitation letter.
- Get support from local leaders to encourage women’s participation.
Help women participate in the meeting:
- Do not give women gendered tasks – like note-taking, food tasks, etc.
- Use gender inclusive nouns, stories, materials, photos, etc. Aim for gender balance in stories, photos, etc.
- If literacy is uneven, focus on conversation, use visual illustrations that don’t require reading, and don’t provide notebooks and pens to participants.
- Use a language everyone will understand equally or use a translator.
- Make sure women have access to any information used or discussed in a format that is accessible to them either prior to or during the meeting.
It is also important to track progress and success. Keep track of whether women attend, and if they do, notice whether they speak during the meeting, ask questions, and make suggestions.
Keep at it
Including women often means finding ways to push the social norms, which can be uncomfortable. It can feel awkward, especially if no one responds positively, and the attempts often feel fruitless day-to-day. But it is important to keep at it. People will hear and you will raise awareness. It takes consistent work and time to find the best places to push the boundaries. From a single community to national policy meetings, small actions from individuals make a difference.
Don’t overthink how to include women. Just go ahead and try as much as you can: talk to them, ask them questions, and ask them to join you during community activities, whether a meeting or a walk around the community. Sometimes you just have to ask. In Malaysia, two years into a camera trapping program with the men in a community, we finally asked the women if they wanted to also be trained to camera trap. They asked us why we hadn’t asked them two years ago.