Table of Contents Next Page

1 Overview: challenges in drylands and gender considerations


The drylands of the world cover approximately 40 percent of the earth’s land surface and are a direct source of livelihood for about one billion people, especially in developing countries. However, nearly all drylands are at risk of land degradation as a result of climate change, increasing human population, land over-use and poverty. This represents a threat to the food security and survival of the people living in these areas as well as to the conservation of the biomass and biodiversity.

Drylands pose different challenges for rural men and women because of their different roles, relations and responsibilities, opportunities and constraints, and uneven access and control of resources. Furthermore, agricultural, environmental and related policies and programmes often fail to recognise women’s particular needs and crucial contribution in the use and management of dryland resources.

By incorporating a gender perspective in policy, projects and programmes, innovative ways of combating dryland degradation and food insecurity can be promoted, notably through a better understanding of men’s and women’s roles, and their respective concerns and needs. The result is a more sustainable, relevant and equitable development based on women’s and men’s full and equal participation, on their respective local knowledge, and on ecological and socio-cultural factors. Such a gender-sensitive dryland development represents a great opportunity for rural men and women to join their strengths to preserve food security and the natural resource base in ways that are sustainable.

This document looks at the relationship between gender and dryland management, based on an analysis of relevant field experiences in Africa and Asia identified on the Internet, highlighting the role of women and men in dryland areas for food security, land conservation/desertification and the conservation of biodiversity. It makes available key findings related to these issues in a number of projets and programmes in Africa and Asia. It also outlines different aspects to be considered for achieving a gender-sensitive and sustainable dryland management.

The lessons extracted from the analysis of these selected case studies in Africa and Asia, are thus intended to assist development practitioners, planners and technical experts engaged in dryland management in the process of integrating a gender perspective in the assessment, formulation, implementation and evaluation of policies, projects and programmes for the sustainable and gender-sensitive development of drylands.

Section 1 briefly reviews the main characteristics of drylands, introduces the theoretical framework of the document, explains gender-related terminology and outlines the roles of relevant UN agreements and conventions related to gender and dryland management as well as FAO’s activities in this field. Section 2 summarizes the key findings of the field experiences, presents lessons learned and recommends ways of improving genderresponsive dryland management. Finally, Section 3 summarises 12 of the 50 case studies from which these findings were drawn.

What are drylands?

Drylands is the common term for three agro-climatic zones: arid, semi-arid and subhumid, where water resources are limited. Aridity and climate variability are dominant characteristics of drylands. Rainfall is scarce, unreliable and concentrated during a short rainy season, while the remaining period tends to be relatively or absolutely dry. The climates are however sufficient to sustain vegetation and human settlement.

Approximately 40 percent of the world’s land area is dryland, encompassing savannah, grassland, woodland and shrub land. Drylands are found in all continents except Antarctica. More commonly recognized drylands include the African Sahel and the Australian outback. Australia, the United States, the Russian Federation, China and Kazakhstan are the countries with the most extensive drylands.

Drylands are a vital part of the earth’s human and physical environments. Their ecosystems play a major role in global biophysical processes by reflecting and absorbing solar radiation and maintaining the balance of atmospheric constituents. They provide much of the world’s grain and livestock, and form the habitat that supports many vegetable species and micro-organisms. Typical crops in drylands include sorghum, maize, cotton, sweet potato, cassava, coffee, banana, tea and sugar cane.

An estimated 40 percent of people in Africa, South America and Asia live in drylands (UNEP, 2000). The human population of the drylands lives in increasing insecurity as productive land per capita diminishes. Soil degradation in drylands, referred to as desertification, affects or puts at risk the livelihoods of people who are directly dependent on the land for their habitat and source of livelihood. The sustainable development of drylands is essential to achieving food security and the conservation of biomass and biodiversity (UNEP, 2000).

Main issues in drylands

Desertification, the process of arable land changing into unproductive soil or desert, threatens one-quarter of the earth’s land and costs US$42 billion every year (UNEP, 2000). It is caused by climate change, including global warming (UNEP, 2000), and unsustainable land management practices, which result from either inadequate techniques or increasing population pressure, and which lead to land degradation. About 65 percent of all arable land has already lost some of its biological and physical functions (UNSO, 2002) and drylands are particularly susceptible.

There is a link between Poverty and environmental degradation which has been signalled often in the literature of the 1990s (Agarwal, 1989; Dankelman and Davidson, 1988; UNSO, 1994). It was thought that women and men farmers who eked out an existence on marginal lands with little education and no access to agricultural resources, could have been driven to adapt practices that may have harmed the environment. However, further research has shown that this relationship is much more complex and there is no direct linear causality between gender, poverty and environmental degradation. Furthermore, when men and women farmers do not own the land they cultivate, there may also be little incentive for them to make environmentally sound decisions. Lack of access to credit may also hamper them from buying technologies and inputs that would be less damaging to natural resources (UNSO, 1994).

As food producers, women and men have a stake in the preservation of the environment and in environmentally sustainable development. Land and water resources form the basis of all farming systems, and their preservation is crucial to sustained and improved food production. A lack of understanding and appreciation of women’s and men’s knowledge of dryland preservation techniques, as well as a disregard for their priorities as resource users, has led many development interventions to fail or to be rejected by local communities. In view of this, planners are now recognizing the value of learning from women’s and men’s local knowledge in order to protect and sustain the environment, and are aiming more to ensure their full and equal participation.

The international community’s efforts to cope with the earth’s deteriorating environment have led to a far-reaching debate on environmentalism and activism, which involves developing and developed countries working at the international, national and local levels. Discussions on gender, environment and sustainable development have been nurtured by increased interest in such problems as deforestation and desertification and by the observation that increasing scarcities of fuelwood, animal fodder and water in certain parts of the world affect women most of all (Braidiotti et al., 1994). Governments, development agencies and civil society organizations are increasingly incorporating a gender perspective in their policies, programmes and projects aimed at protecting drylands. However, the road to achieving sustainable development of drylands is still a long and arduous one, and the commitments made at international conferences and conventions need to be translated into practice, with the full and equal participation of women and men at the local, national and international levels.

Basic gender-sensitive questions

Theoretical framework of the document

This document reflects the evolution in the way development organisations deal with the human factor, particularly with women, and the broad-based international consensus on the “gender and development” approach.

Over recent decades, the discourse on the advancement of women and gender equality in relation to the development process has evolved from the women in development (WID) to the gender and development (GAD) approach. In the WID approach development resources were used to improve women’s conditions and make their contributions visible, but this approach did not address the basic structure of inequality in relations between women and men, as it tended to focus solely on women.

The shift in theoretical approach places gender as a central category of analysis and has opened up a new debate (Braidiotti et al., 1994; Moser, 1993; UN, 1999). The point of the GAD approach is to examine how the relative positions of men and women in society, and the system governing the relations between them, affect their ability to participate in development (FAO, 1997). The issue is no longer that of incorporating women (who are involved in much of the work, yet continue to be left out of most of the benefits), but rather of empowering them in order to transform unequal relations: “empowerment cannot be given, it must be self-generated, by facilitating women’s access to enabling resources which will allow them to take greater control of their lives, to determine what kind of relations they would want to live within” (Kabeer, 1995). The GAD approach requires that social, political and economic structures and development policies be re-examined from the perspective of gender relations (Jackson and Pearson, 1998; Molyneux, 1998; UN, 1999).

Gender-related terminology

Source: FAO, 2001

The human dimension in UN environmental and related conventions

Since the early 1980s, considerable attention has been devoted to women’s and men’s different roles in preserving the environment, and extensive efforts have been made to identify the effects of the international environmental crisis on women. Momentum was reached at the workshop of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) that ran parallel to the first World Conference on Women (Nairobi, 1985), when it was recognized that the themes of “women and development” and “the environment” are interlinked and must be incorporated into policy planning.

Since then, several international conventions and agreements have been adopted by the international community, all including commitments reflecting a broad-based consensus on the need to remove the obstacles to women’s and men’s equal and active participation in and benefit from development initiatives. The following are the most important of these.

Agenda 21 (UNCED): The UN Conference on Environment and Development (UNCED) in Rio de Janeiro in 1992 clearly acknowledged the important role that women need to play in regard to sustainable development. Chapter 24 of Agenda 21 outlines the necessary increased involvement of women at all levels of decision-making. Around the world and in most cultural and social contexts, women traditionally are responsible for the management of natural resources and the social life of communities.

Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD): The 1992 CBD is designed to protect the planet’s biodiversity, including genes, species (plant and animal) and ecosystems. It is based on the recognition that biodiversity is a global asset under threat and commits governments to conservation, the sustainable use of biodiversity and the sharing of benefits. The Convention recognizes women’s “vital role in the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity” and affirms the need for the “full participation of women at all levels of policy-making and implementation for biological diversity conservation”.

Beijing Platform for Action: The Platform for Action adopted by the Fourth World Conference on Women in Beijing in 1995 identified the need to involve women actively in environmental decision-making at all levels, and to incorporate a gender perspective in all strategies for sustainable development, as one of 12 critical areas of concern requiring action by states, the international community and civil society. Under Strategic Objective K.1 in the Beijing Platform for Action (1995), governments agreed to encourage the protection, use and promotion of the knowledge, innovations and practices of women in indigenous and local communities, ensuring that they are preserved in an ecologically sustainable manner and that women’s intellectual property rights are protected under national and international law (paragraph 253.c; SIDA, 1998).

International Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD): The International Convention to Combat Desertification (CCD), adopted in June 1994, expressly highlights the essential role that women play in the sustainable management of drylands. The signatory parties committed themselves to promoting awareness and facilitating the participation of local populations, particularly women, in the decisions that affect them. Although the concept of gender is not specifically mentioned in the convention, it is considered to be an underlying principle (UNSO, 1999). CCD takes equal account of both sexes so as to ensure the participation of women and men in programmes to combat desertification. It emphasizes the need to expand women’s opportunities to learn about the conservation and sustainable utilization of natural resources, and addresses the issue of female literacy. Literacy increases women’s ability to take part in the conservation and sustainable use of natural resources, giving them greater power to bring their experiences and perspectives to bear on the search for effective answers (GTZ, 1999).

Rome Declaration on World Food Security and World Food Summit (WFS) Plan of Action (1995): Both recognize that full and equal participation of men and women are essential for achieving sustainable food security for all and acknowledge the fundamental contribution to food security by women, particularly in rural areas of developing countries, and the need to ensure equality between men and women. Gender is not specifically mentioned in the objective 3.2. related to combating “environmental threats to food security, in particular, drought and desertification, pests, erosion of biological diversity, and degradation of land (…), and restoring and rehabilitating the natural resource base, including water and watersheds, in depleted and overexploited areas to achieve greater production”. However, it is considered to be an underlying principle of the Rome Declaration on World Food Security and the World Food Summit Plan of Action.

UN Framework Convention on Climate Change/Kyoto Protocol (UNFCC):

The Convention (1992) on Climate Change and the Kyoto Protocol (1997) have, to a large extent, magnified the North-South divide and exposed cracks in the South-South alliance. An overall assessment of the climate change debate to date shows that women are absent from the decision-making process. Their contribution to environmental policies is largely ignored, and women benefit less from and suffer more of the adverse effects of energy projects. Increasingly, women’s participation is being recognized as a key component in climate change issues. It is necessary to shift the focus from women towards the adoption of a broader gender approach. Gender issues in the energy sector are complex and multifaceted and should be addressed from all levels, including decision-making, policy and regulation, financing, awareness-raising and capacity building, and service delivery. Overall, progressive gender-sensitive policies and capacity building should recognize and acknowledge the division of labour and the differing energy needs of men and women (RABEDE, 2001).

From words to action

There is a need to translate the commitments emanating from the environmental con ventions into concrete action. Sustainable development of drylands must take place at the local level with the full and equal participation of both rural women and men in decision making processes and project planning and implementation.

Yet despite all these efforts, gender discrimination in access to, and control of, resources and services persists - as does the neglect of women’s rights - because of political and cultural impediments that are difficult to eradicate and that require resources and a strong political will. These impediments have also hindered the signatory parties’and development agents’efforts to mainstream gender in sustainable dryland development. In Agenda 21, for example, significant gaps remain between the goals and strategies agreed in Chapter 24 and practical implementation; there are gaps of knowledge with regard to the complex structural relationships between environmental policy goals and gender issues. Neither the decisions of CBD’s Conferences of the Parties (COP) nor the recommendations of its Subsidiary Body on Scientific, Technical and Technological Advice (SBSTTA) have taken much account of the significance of gender in the attainment of CBD’s objectives (GTZ, 2001).

The successful implementation of the Conventions still depends on addressing issues such as the collection and use of sex-disaggregated data, the understanding of gender, the capacities and tools to ensure integration of the gender dimension, as well as the knowledge of existing resources and expertise on gender issues.

FAO’s activities related to drylands

FAO’s response to land degradation and desertification reflects its mandate; i.e. to increase and sustain food security, particularly for populations in affected areas, and in line with the principle of gender equality. Although both rural men and women have different and complementary roles in guaranteeing food security, women often play a greater role in ensuring nutrition, food safety and quality. Through its Gender and Development Plan of Action, FAO promotes gender equality in access to food, productive resources, support services and decision-making at all levels. FAO also recognises that development in the drylands needs to take into account the different activities to be implemented by the various groups of men, women, young and elders, and that the difficulties faced by the poor in raising their level of livelihood are particularly acute for women.

Through the establishment of an interdepartmental working group (IDWG) on Desertification in 1993, the Organization has been implementing numerous projects and programmes which combine the objectives of food security and combating land degradation and desertification. Such activities range from local development projects, to policy advice to governments, training and capacity building at all levels, and cover topics such as soil and water conservation, agroforestry, promotion of sustainable energy sources, rehabilitation of agriculture biodiversity and increasing of food production at the household level, etc.

Field experience in combating dryland degradation has demonstrated that women and men’s full and equal participation is essential for the success of sustainable development and the management of drylands. The integration of socioeconomic factors and driving forces in land degradation assessment and participatory resources assessment and planning forms a cornerstone of the approach of the Dryland Land Degradation Assessment (LADA) project, a major international initiative that FAO is leading for the provision of basic, standardized maps, data bases and methodologies on state, causes, impacts of land degradation and possible remedial measures to combat it at national, regional and global levels.

Top of Page Next Page