Gender and development People

Posted May 1999

Women's empowerment and gender mainstreaming in participatory upland conservation and development

reported by the FAO Forest Conservation, Research and Education Service

In all upland and mountain communities, women play a major and even increasing role in farming activities and in the exploitation of common property resources. However, women's participation in conservation and development initiatives is often affected by their insufficient decision-making power within the household, the farm, and the community. Women's empowerment and mainstreaming of gender concerns are thus essential elements of any sustainable mountain development action.

Based on this assumption, since 1992, the national field components in Bolivia, Burundi, Nepal, Pakistan and Tunisia of the "Inter-regional Project for Participatory Upland Conservation and Development" - GCP/INT/542/ITA, the PUCD project, have supported local women in developing an increasingly active role in participatory and integrated watershed management. This has entailed:

The experience of the PUCD project in Bhusunde and Maudi Khola watersheds (within Gorkha District, in the Middle Hills of Nepal), provides an example of the implementation of this methodological itinerary. In this area, women's user groups formed quite spontaneously at the beginning of the project, to carry-out activities closely related to women's immediate needs. These included (among others) the protection of water sources and the construction of water tanks (which has a significant impact on the time-consuming task of fetching water for household and animal consumption), and adult literacy classes (basically aimed at learning how to keep group records and to manage user group savings).

At a subsequent stage, women's user groups began to collaborate with male user groups in farming systems improvement and natural resource management activities. For instance, some women's groups became interested in using the surplus of water originated by the protected sources for growing vegetables, with the twofold aim of improving the diet and of producing small surpluses for the local market. Since women traditionally do not own land, nor have access to communal land, these women sought to associate men within their user groups. Thus, women's groups actually evolved into "mixed" user groups, managed by men and women on a democratic and equitable basis.

A similar process took place in connection with the hand-over of State-owned forests to local user groups, foreseen by the 1993 national Forest Act and implemented in Bhusunde Khola with the support of the PUCD project. As male and female groups of the same hamlet expressed their interest in being officially recognised as forest user groups, a negotiation process was facilitated by the project within the concerned communities. This brought to the formation of mixed forest user groups to which the forests were eventually entitled.

Nowadays, following these and other similar experiences, almost all of the about 150 user groups existing in the Bushunde and Maudi Khola watersheds are mixed groups, in which men and women equitably share responsibilities and benefits. About two thirds of these groups are led by women.

As a subsequent step, women are increasingly recognised as important actors in local associations of user groups and watershed forums, and influence major political decisions at the local territory level. This trend is being strengthened by facilitating women's user group leaders in their role of group promoters of project-assisted activities, also in view of promoting the spontaneous continuation and expansion of the participatory process across the whole Bhusunde Khola watershed.

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