How gender equality impacts conservation

Women carry baskets and wear colorful clothes as they walk down a path

Despite women’s critical roles in communities in many rural areas of developing countries—from food production and water management to child-rearing and making and selling goods—women are consistently underrepresented and face barriers to participating in natural resource management and climate adaptation decision-making from local to global levels. Discriminatory gender norms can lead to unequal gender representation in positions of power and decision-making spaces. This imbalance can lead to a vicious cycle that continues to deprive women of access to formal education, financial resources, and political power, perpetuating their low social status and creating barriers to participate in decision-making for the very natural resources they disproportionately rely on for their livelihoods and wellbeing.

However, research from the CARE-WWF Alliance shows that empowering women can reduce environmental damage, especially when women are engaged in natural resource management and conservation leadership positions. The research also found that nations with higher levels of gender inequality tend to have lower environmental wellbeing and vice versa. More data is needed to explore the dynamics that gender plays within conservation, but initial findings suggest that there are at least two ways to transform inequitable power dynamics: empowering women to have the knowledge, tools, and training they need to claim their rights to participate in and lead in natural resource governance, and engaging men as advocates for women’s equality in environmental and other sectors. 

A woman carrying sticks in the forest looks up at the camera

Female leaders in action: Hariyo Ban
In Nepal, there is a strong community forestry movement which includes Community Forest User Groups (CFUGs), where the government hands over land to communities to manage their local forests and derive benefits from them. However, in some cases, management decision-making and benefit-sharing are not inclusive or equitable within communities, often to the detriment of women and marginalized groups.

Between 2011 and 2021, Hariyo Ban, a program in Nepal funded by United States Agency for International Development (USAID), worked with women and other groups that face barriers in local communities, including women, to play leading roles in sustainable forest and watershed management. One portion of the program supported women and underrepresented people’s empowerment through Community Learning and Action Centers. Around 1,500 people—96% of them women and girls—participated in forum-style meetings where they discussed their experiences and challenges related to relationships, personal rights, livelihoods, community development, forests, and climate change impacts. Through these conversations, participants developed the knowledge, skills, and self-confidence to claim their rights to participate in community-level natural resource management decision-making and access their share of resilient livelihood benefits from forests and watersheds.

However, this alone was often not enough to strengthen the internal governance of CFUGs and other institutions. The program also provided training for key male members of these groups in women’s leadership development and gender sensitivity, which increased men’s support for women in community-based natural resource management initiatives and leadership positions. In the community institutions supported in phase two of the program, leadership positions filled by a member of a group that faced barriers increased to 87%, up 15% from the baseline. In turn, empowered women and vulnerable groups took action in their communities to adapt to the climate crisis and improve local forest management in ways that also enhanced their livelihoods. Many women went on to lead green enterprises and some were elected as rural municipality officials.

Through Community Learning and Action Center dialogues and other interventions facilitated by the Hariyo Ban program, over 20,000 climate-vulnerable people were trained in climate change adaptation and disaster risk reduction. Subsequent community-led adaptation plans resulted in support for around 480 drinking water systems, saving many women time and labor previously spent fetching water, and over 180 irrigation systems, which increased food production through improved and climate-resilient home gardening or commercial farming.

An equitable and sustainable future
The Hariyo Ban program offers a strong example of how women’s meaningful participation in conservation decision-making benefits both the community and the environment. Women and men must both play an active role in changing the course of our development trajectory and its impact on the environment. By ensuring that women have a seat at the table, we move towards a future where we can all take part in caring for our shared planet.

The CARE-WWF Alliance works with communities to support nature-based solutions that expand opportunities into a green economy while conserving and managing natural resources for the future.