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Men and women in forest activities: Differences and complementarities

Natural resources
Credit and technology
Education, training and extension
Knowledge and conservation of the environment
Contribution to food security
Representation and decision-making

Today, the international forestry community fully recognises that women and men play different roles in forestry and forestry-related activities. Case studies conducted in all parts of the world confirm that rural women and men fulfil significant, but distinct, functions in natural resource use and management. The tasks they perform, the way they earn a living and allocate their time, the way they use forest and tree resources, the control they have over resources are among the factors that can vary enormously.

These differences can also be found at the level of constraints, barriers and opportunities. Further, these variations exist not only between cultures, but also within cultures, communities and families. As male migration and female poverty increase, these differences will have an ever-growing impact.

Migration and Poverty

The important phenomenon of the rural exodus of men in search of paid employment means that households are increasingly headed by women. They struggle with difficulties that only serve to further accentuate their poverty, and they find themselves forced to make choices in the absence of male labour.

Today, of the estimated 1.3 billion people living in poverty, more than 70% are women. The number of rural women living in absolute poverty has risen by almost 50% over the past two decades. Increasingly, poverty has a woman's face (2).

The following sections look at the differences, points in common and complementarities that can often be found between men and women in the forest sector. Far from being exhaustive, this list is intended solely as a rapid overview of the differences and complementarities between men and women in the various spheres of the forest sector, differences that cannot be ignored in planning.

Natural resources

The document entitled 'Integrating Gender Considerations into FAO Forestry Projects' (FAO, 1993) outlines the basic differences between men and women concerning activities connected with trees and forests:

• land tenure laws, both customary and statutory, may be different for men and women;

• some women may retain exclusive rights to certain parts of a tree (leaves, branches, fruit), while the tree itself may be "owned" by a man;

• women may choose one crop over another to avoid the need for male labour during land clearing;

• men and women may make different decisions about the use and sale of forest products;

• women and men may prefer different tree species based on the tasks they fulfil.

It is important to recognise that, even though women are often at a disadvantage to men when it comes to access to natural resources, this access varies enormously from context to context and it is impossible to generalise.

On the other hand, it is clear that deforestation affects women in particular since they are primarily responsible for collecting firewood, water and numerous forest products. Having to travel longer distances for gathering and employing more time and energy to find water and fetch wood has a negative impact on other activities they could undertake to earn income or simply have free time.


The work of men and women in society often has three dimensions:

1) in relation to reproduction, above all child-bearing, the education of children, household tasks (including fetching water and firewood), as well as tasks related to the maintenance and sustainability of the work force. This aspect generally concerns women, even if men participate to a much lesser extent;

2) in relation to production in exchange for monetary or in-kind retribution; this aspect falls within the competence of both men and women;

3) in relation to community, voluntary and unpaid activities that contribute to social cohesion (holidays, traditions, etc.). This aspect is primarily the responsibility of women.

With regard to productive labour in developing countries, women constitute an important segment of the work-force in forest and forest-related activities: they work in tree nurseries, plantations, harvesting, processing, sale of wood, etc. What differentiates men and women above all is the fact that much of women's work "remains unrecognised and unvalued. This has an impact on the status of women in society, their opportunities in public life and the gender-blindness of development policy. (...) Women's work is greatly undervalued in economic terms". (2)

Credit and technology

As emphasised in the Third Progress Report on the Programme of Action of the World Conference on Agrarian Reform and Rural Development (Rome, 1991), "programmes for granting credit and guaranteeing loans benefit male farmers, while women, who have no land or guarantee, are excluded from these, although it is recognised that they are less likely to default on payments...". Men dominate assets and means of production such as land and technology. Subsequently, the enormous potential contribution of women remains underused. (2)

Education, training and extension

Education increases the ability to participate in society and to improve the quality of life and the standard of living. The school enrolment gap between men and women is still very wide.

Extension programmes for women are also limited. As stressed in the UNDP Human Development Report 1995 (2), almost all extension workers are men, even if women constitute the majority of farmers. "In the late 1980s, only 13% of agricultural field agents in the developing world were women - only 7% in Africa and 0,5% in India. Most Indian states do not include female farmers among extension beneficiaries - even though 48% of India's self-employed cultivators in 1983 were women. In Africa, only 69% of female farmers received extension visits, compared with 97% of male farmers."

The same inequality of access exists in training programmes (technical, management, etc.).

Knowledge and conservation of the environment

Even though women are largely excluded from training and extension programmes, it should be noted that they possess a wide range of knowledge about the use and conservation of natural resources. For example, in Sierra Leone, women could name 31 different uses for trees while men could name only eight (4). Men and women possess different knowledge about natural resources and forest genetics. Drawing on the knowledge of one and the other can only enrich programmes.

Men and women often have very different skills and knowledge, which together create a knowledge system specific to local conditions, needs and priorities.

There are basically four elements to gender differences in knowledge systems1:

• women and men have knowledge about different things;
• men and women have different knowledge about the same things;
• women and men may organise their knowledge in different ways;
• men and women may receive and transmit their knowledge through different means.

1 Huisinga Norem, Rosalie, Rhonda Yoder and Yolanda Martin, "Indigenous Agricultural Knowledge and Gender Issues in Third World Agricultural Development" in Warren, et al. Indigenous Knowledge Systems: Implications for Agricultural and International Development. Studies in Technologies and Social Change Series, no. 11., Iowa State University. 1993.

Contribution to food security2

2 Refer to "Considering Nutrition in National Forestry Programmes" (FAO, 1996) for more details on the benefits from trees and forests regarding food security.

Forest and tree products can make direct contributions to household food security and health, mainly for the poorest families and in times of natural disaster or "lean season". Further, the income obtained though the sale of certain products (fuelwood, medicines) can then be used to purchase food. It is worth noting that men and women usually spend their incomes differently. For example, a study conducted in Burkina Faso indicated that men spend 33% of their income on food and family needs while women spend 84% of their income on the family (Commission of the European Communities, 1991; quoted in (3)).


Legal parameters such as land and tree property rights can vary enormously, but usually to the detriment of women. At the same time, family and community norms, traditions and religious beliefs are other factors that often have a discriminatory impact on women's access to and control of resources and benefits.

"In many parts of the developing world, women do not have legal control over the land they farm. (...) In Africa, where women constitute 80% of food producers, past policies have undermined their traditional land rights" (2).

In 'Development Policy and Strategy for the Benefit of Rural Women' (5), it is noted that at the juridical level, the most crucial element "concerns land, its ownership, access and use. Rural women are often excluded from owning this primary production factor through either inheritance systems or land tenure regulations. (...) The criterion for being awarded land (...) is status as family head. Although rural women often fulfil. this function in the absence of men (through migration, death or divorce), they are still not eligible to hold land since the law does not recognise their status as family head."

The lack of land tenure security has important repercussions on productivity (why invest if there is no guarantee of use?), on sustainability (why use techniques that favour the sustainability of resources?) and on access to certain services (such as credit).

Representation and decision-making

In most cultures, women are excluded from leadership and decision-making roles which determine development activities. Women do not share fully in decision-making processes at household, village or national levels. Their representation in political parties, public institutions and people's organisations has not been sufficient to ensure they benefit fully from the development of their communities and nations. Some progress has been made through access to local groups and organisations, but a wider acceptance of their capabilities is required at all levels of policy-making (12).

Being less represented than men in associations and other organised groups, women have less opportunities to speak out. This is important because organised groups increase the visibility and the involvement of persons in the decision-making processes regarding the actions affecting them. "Organised groups also help women to overcome their reluctance to speak out, act or intervene on their own. This factor is particularly significant when it comes to obtaining credit, machinery, tools, land and access to services. Groups are also excellent structures for all types of training..." (5).

This rapid overview of the differences and complementarities between men and women in the rural and forest sector demonstrates the existence of clear disparities in roles, responsibilities, possibilities and constraints between the female and male population, often to the detriment of women.

In fact, the differences and contrasts to be found in everyday life are the fruit of an historical imbalance which was reflected in many years of development projects. It was not recognised until the 1970s, thanks to the work of Ester Boserup ('Women's Role in Economic Development'), that development has different repercussions on men and women.

It was then that the idea that development could not be considered a neutral process regarding gender equality began gaining ground. But Boserup's work went even further: of all development projects, many not only did not take into account women but even reduced their autonomy and their opportunities in the economic sector.

This calls into question the traditional model of development. Today, it is accepted that individuals - men and women - should be at the centre of all development processes. In this sense, the development paradigm based on the individual would have little sense if the question of gender equality was not taken into serious consideration.

The forest sector is not excluded from this necessity, and planners and those responsible for designing policies cannot ignore this aspect of planning. The success of sustainable development and the achievement of greater equality necessarily depends on taking into account actors ignored in the past and ensuring their participation, whether they be women or marginalised sectors (ethnic or poor groups, etc.).

It is now recognised that planning is doomed to failure if it does not consider the needs, priorities and constraints of the target population. As a result, it is essential to look at the specificities of men and women, and to collect gender-specific data that can add to the development planning process.

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