WWF's Nathalie Simoneau on how empowering women improves local conservation

Nathalie Simoneau

NATHALIE SIMONEAU is a health and nutrition specialist who holds a master ’s degree from McGill University’s Centre for Indigenous Peoples’ Nutrition and Environment. She focuses on mainstreaming gender and social issues into major WWF programs globally.

Successful conservation work often comes down to understanding connections. When it comes to environmental and social issues, the connections are many. And the issues are intertwined—reshaping one another from day to day.

That’s why WWF integrates analysis and consideration of the human condition—culture, health, gender, and other social dynamics—into our conservation work.

For me, that means looking at how women are treated in a given community and how that, in turn, affects conservation efforts. I work on mainstreaming this approach in conservation projects around the globe—making it business-as-usual to consider how environmental policies and issues impact women in every sphere of their lives.

WWF works with many places where women start with nothing yet often serve as the biggest users of natural resources: They go into the forests to gather wood and food; they collect fresh water for drinking, cooking, and bathing; they tend to the fields. But they might not have a seat at the table when decisions are made about how those resources are used.

So we’re trying to help women understand their rights and give them the tools, capacity, and voice to achieve what they need.

My background is actually in nutrition, but I quickly figured out that clinical work in a hospital was not for me. A project in Nepal got me involved in public health and nutrition at the community level. I later studied changes in the traditional food system of Aboriginal communities in Canada to understand how they were adapting.

What became clear to me over time is that nutrition—and the overall health of a community—does not exist in a vacuum. What people eat depends on what food is available, and what food is available depends on the abundance and condition of natural resources. Those factors relate to restrictions around natural areas, and who is responsible for producing and collecting food. Interconnectedness is so important.

I brought that lesson with me when I started working for WWF in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) in early 2010. We work on biodiversity conservation and climate change adaptation in four sprawling landscapes there. Women have very few rights to land and very little decision-making power over land and natural resources—yet they carry the bulk of the responsibility for providing food for their families. They have a wealth of knowledge about their environment and how they use it, but aren’t represented when decisions are made about those necessities. It is laborious work to change those customs.

That struck a chord with me. How can we better understand the dynamics between men and women in a given culture and their impacts on natural resources? How can we incorporate social policies and issues into our conservation strategies?

These are both enormous and challenging questions. It’s not a given in every country or culture that women are considered knowledgeable, skilled, and valuable contributors to society. So we have to find the baseline. How are women respected or valued in a particular place? Who performs which tasks? Do both men and women have a voice in decision-making? And we have to talk to everyone—men and women, separately and together—to get those answers. Only after we complete a full gender analysis of a community can we begin to understand what interventions may be needed to empower women and promote an inclusive approach to problem solving.

We performed such an analysis in each landscape where we worked in the DRC. Then—with the help of other organizations, governments, donors, and local partners—we developed a work-shop that brought communities together with the ministries of the environment and of women, children, and social affairs to talk about forest loss, land tenure, and community forestry and gender.

And the workshop really helped! It got the government involved in women’s rights in conservation, and in July 2016 the government signed an official document stating that women and gender issues must be taken into consideration at all levels of development and management of community forestry concessions.

This was the first step. It set in motion a plan to guide the implementation of these community forestry rights for women at the local level. This was huge—a major step forward in advocating for the inclusion of vulnerable groups.

It truly emphasizes that when we approach conservation issues by helping communities understand, include, and promote women, everyone benefits. Including the environment.

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