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Seeing women...

Seeing women through secondary sources
Seeing women through community observation
Seeing women in local systems
Seeing women through other disciplines

Women have been called "invisible labourers". Their work is often not counted in formal labour statistics because:

- women's work is often home-based or within the "informal sector", such as street vending;
- both women and men may deny that women "work" in some regions, due to custom;
- much work is simply assumed to be done by men, such as farming and forestry, and women's participation is overlooked.

Secondary sources, community observations, learning about local household systems and using other disciplines besides forestry can all help make women visible.

Seeing women through secondary sources

As much as possible, consult secondary data which show seasonal labour, resource availability and support services for women and men.

Many times, however, this information will not be available at all and, if it is, it is not disaggregated by gender. Recognition of the importance of this data is a first step toward making it available and a first step in making women, their work and needs, more visible.

Hut construction in Senegal - making use of natural materials

Seeing women through community observation

Driving, walking, or riding through an area in a leisurely manner with the outline of a project in mind and some pertinent questions to consider can yield a great deal of information.

Simply looking and knowing what to look for can give a project design team a new view of women's roles within the community.


The first questions are: Who are the people? Who looks prosperous and who less prosperous? What are women, men and children doing? Also, what institutions such as schools, religious buildings, health facilities and markets - are visible? Who works in these institutions - men or women? - and who uses them?


The project planner should observe: Who are the people? Who are in the fields? What are the women doing? What natural resources are visible? What trees, bushes, plants and flowers? And which of them seem to be close to the homestead?


If trees are in fields or around homes, which trees are they and what are their functions? Were they planted, protected or just left there? If they were planted, were they planted by seed, cutting, transplanted from elsewhere or seedlings raised or purchased from a nursery?

Who in the family selected the trees, who planted them and who has the right to fruit, leaves, branches? Who can cut the trees down? Who in the family has control over land use decisions?

Seeing women in local systems

In designing a community forestry activity, the local systems and the responsibilities and benefits for women and men within those systems will need to be understood. Only then can one be aware of motives for and constraints to participation by different community members.

Insights can also be gained regarding the possible effects of participation.

A rural family lives within a system composed of four basic parts:

- the household and its individual members
- the livestock and in some cases wildlife;
- the crops; and
- the natural vegetation including trees and forests.

These parts interact with one another and with the community at large. Asking certain questions can help clarify each part and its relationship to women and trees.


The planner needs to know who makes up the household: husband, wife and children? Husband, wives, grandparents and children? A woman and her child?

In many regions, the extended family makes a definition of "household" difficult. In one area of Africa, the definition became "those people who eat from the same pot" or "use the same cooking fire". Whatever the definition, it should be used consistently by planners.

Female heads of household need to be counted. However, in many parts of the world it is a matter of honour that a man be counted as head of household even though he may be absent because of death, divorce, migration, or abandonment. Different forms of living arrangements, monogamy, polyandry, consensual unions and polygamy, have different implications for different family members depending on age and gender.

The planner needs to know who makes up the household

A first wife may have privileges of land tenure that the third wife does not have. An older woman often has more freedom and decision making power than does a woman of childbearing age. A man may own a tree, but the women may control its leaves or fruit.

Further questions: what household tasks are performed - for example, provision of water and fuelwood, cooking, child and health care - and by which members? Are the right persons being asked for information?

Men, perceived as heads of house hold, are often interviewed for projects. In Haiti, many men identified no household problem in obtaining water or fodder. Only by interviewing their wives was it learned the women walked five kilometres in search of both. In the hill areas of Nepal, men are responsible for house and furniture construction that depend on one species of tree. But women collecting fuelwood for cook stoves and fires depend on two other species.3

Rural women are mainly responsible for health care and child care and may depend, during dry seasons or periods of food scarcity, on food found in forests or bush, or on fallow land.


Key questions here are: What livestock are kept and for what are they used? Are they large or small animals? And why are they kept: for milk, eggs, dung, religious reasons, status, bride wealth? Are wild animals used?

Taboos surrounding the use of animals and animal products are frequent. In many areas, very little meat is eaten, especially by women, and parts of the animal, even a chicken or fish, is relegated by gender, age and status. Among the Shona in Zimbabwe, for example, cattle are used for manure, for ploughing, to enhance male status and as payment to a bride's father. Seldom are cattle used for beef.4

In parts of Sudan, meat comes chiefly from wild game, antelope, elephant, buffalo, lizards, rabbit and warthogs. Traps, spears, arrows and nets all are made of tree products m one way or another.5

Who in the household has responsibility for livestock?

In parts of West Africa, farmers report earning more family income from hunting wild rodents and small game that depend on the forests than from crops. In Sierra Leone, women who fish remark that there are fewer fish as tree cover is removed and streams and ponds become silted.

It is important to discover who in the household has responsibility for the livestock. Do women and men have control over different animals? Who milks them and collects fodder and dung? Who builds pens and what type of material do they use? Who benefits from the livestock and in what way? If women are in charge, does the fodder need to be available close to the household compound? Who hunts, processes and benefits from large game, small animals, insects and fish?

Women frequently care for small livestock - calves, chickens, rabbits - while men care for large animals. One reason is that women may manage animals that stay close to home while men may be more mobile, going greater distances with the herds for fodder and water.

A papaya tree in Indonesia

When projects suggest stall feeding instead of free ranging animals in order to protect the environment, someone must add fodder and water collecting as well as stall cleaning to their daily tasks. In many cases, cattle herding is the work of men or boys but these new chores are in the woman's domain and must be added other daily chores.

Often in fishing communities men do marine fishing although women may fish in streams and women smoke fish for sale.


Observe: What crops, both annual and perennial, are raised and how are they used? Which are for sale and which are for home use? How are trees used to manage soil, water, or wind in support of annual crop production? When trees are introduced as crops whose land will be used? Will it change food or income patterns?

In many rural areas of the world, households have fruit trees - banana, mango, coconut, jackfruit, breadfruit, papaya, guava, cashew, apples, berries - near the homestead and accessible to the woman.

Who in the household works with the crops? Who plants, who cooks and who markets? Do men and women work with different crops?

Specific crops are often closely related to gender. In many parts of sub-Saharan Africa, women are responsible for certain crops and have their own fields. Often these are subsistence crops, such as cassava, millet, vegetables. Men are more involved with cash crops, rice, coffee and tea.

However, at times both grow subsistence crops: in parts of Nigeria, for example, women grow cassava and men concentrate on yams. If tree growing is introduced, how will land and labour distribution be affected?

Even when crops are grown by women and men together, the tasks associated with agriculture may be gender-specific. In Sri Lanka, both men and women are active in agriculture. Men, however, are primarily responsible for land preparation and chemical application, whereas women dominate in other tasks - seeding, transplanting, weeding, harvesting and processing.

When a tree plantation is introduced, therefore, women may have responsibility for carrying water. When agroforestry is introduced, women may need to spend extra time weeding around the trees.6

In one region of Colombia, women have few tasks in the field. However, decisions on what to grow are often shared by men and women. This is because the type of bean grown for export does not have the flavour or cooking characteristics demanded by the farm woman, who is responsible for feeding hired agricultural labour: if the food is not good, the labour does not come and the crops are not harvested.7

Many decisions on harvesting or selling family or communal trees are discussed at home although the men may present the decision in public meetings. In a case study in Peru women complained that a meeting about selling community owned trees was held with the men without prior information and warning. Women felt it unfair that they were unable to take part in the decision making process by discussing the issues with their husbands. This type of women's informal participation in decision making is apt to be overlooked by outsiders.8


Natural vegetation and trees

Questions here are: What areas of natural vegetation are available and how are they used? Is there communal land and what are the rules on its use? Is there any forest reserve land and who has access to which products from this land? Are there products that could benefit rural families if made available?

Could these areas be managed to provide more benefits, especially to the poor, without disadvantaging others? Who in the household collects and uses these products?

Landless and land poor families everywhere take advantage of forest and tree resources when they are available. A study shows that farm families in Northeast Thailand obtain 60% of their food from nearby forests.9 In India, landless women often depend on government forests for food, fuel and fodder for family use and for forest products they sell.

For example, many women in Madhya Pradesh generate income only through forest harvesting of tendu leaves, which are used in the production of low cost cigarettes called bidi. Previously, middlemen bought permits to harvest these leaves, and harvesting was done largely by women, who earned very little.

A typical home garden in Southeast Asia

In 1988 the Forestry Department of Madhya Pradesh took control of tendu harvesting and doubled the price paid for harvesting the leaves. The Department also introduced quality controls that rejected broken leaves. The experiment paid off: thanks to the increase in leaf quality, bidi manufacturers are willing to pay a prime price, which has doubled the income of the women harvesters and made the Department an unexpected profit.

Further questions: What trees are found on the farm and in household areas, who has the rights to them and who actually uses them?

Are they used for fodder, medicines, fuelwood, food or soil, water or wind management.? Are they for household use or income-generation? Are they used to provide shelter for animals, as building materials or to make household utensils?

A study in a rural area of Java - where families have no access to forests showed 60% of the family food comes from home gardens (illustrated above) in which trees play an integral role.10

Seeing women through other disciplines

Those who design forestry projects are accustomed to working within technical disciplines: for example, forestry, agronomy and animal science. Many times these disciplines focus on a product, such as timber or a specific crop, while the interaction of the product and the rural people - particularly women - who use it is given only secondary importance.

By involving other disciplines that focus on this interaction, women can be made more visible in the process of project design.

Women must be consulted about forestry projects


In Bangladesh, the economic and technical subtleties of a community forestry project were designed by an economist and a forester. The sociological issues were dealt with in a cursory fashion, through a household survey done by male interviewers with male heads of households. In their report. the project designers noted that "the involvement of women in forestry is very limited".

In fact, unknown to the project designers, women's involvement in forestry was substantial. So many problems resulted from this misunderstanding that the project's mid-term evaluation team included an anthropologist to discover why women's participation in forestry activities had not been forthcoming. The evaluation team's report concluded that women should have been consulted during the project design phase and recommended a series of immediate practical steps to correct this "oversight".11


Designers of forestry projects should confer with women in particular so that their perception of the food, fuel and fodder trees they depend upon can be used in selecting species for tree nurseries.

The project should also identify the time of year when local food supplies are most in deficit, and conduct a survey of local people's preference for food-bearing trees that produce during that season. This approach could help women improve the resource base from which they feed their families.12


In Nepal, staff of a large reforestation project realized that women needed to be trained as foresters and extension agents in order to provide information to other rural women who were the primary users of the forests. Women had never been trained in forestry before and only 5% of the women in Nepal are literate.

Nevertheless, through careful planning by educators and social scientists, training facilities were revamped to accommodate women, taking into consideration both the physical facilities and the cultural implications of including female trainees.13


Legal studies can make visible gender differences in rights to use land and trees, and can highlight the potential impact of proposed legal changes on different groups. For instance, the Luo women in Kenya lost many of their traditional rights to land when statutory law gave title only to male heads of households. Nevertheless, they retained exclusive rights to the nuts and fruits of trees which they traditionally used, although not to the land on which the trees grew.14

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