Women’s empowerment is key to fortifying the forestry sector

Compared to men, women are frequently disadvantaged in their access to and control over forest resources and in their ability to take advantage of economic opportunities, according to an FAO paper that calls for action on gender disparities in the forestry sector.

©FAO/Simon Maina

“Women’s roles in forestry value chains should be strengthened, as should their voices in forest organizations,” says one of the authors, Libor Stloukal, FAO Policy Officer, explaining that these are two promising ways to eliminate the disadvantages.

Men’s and women’s differing roles and opportunities in the forestry sector result in gender disparities in access to and use of forest foods, fuelwood and fodder for livestock; forest management; the marketing of forest and tree products; and participation in forest user groups. These topics are outlined in “Forests, food security and gender: linkages, disparities and priorities for action,” a paper prepared by a team led by Stloukal of FAO’s Gender, Equity and Rural Employment Division (ESW), in collaboration with the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) and the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF), for the International Conference on Forests for Food Security and Nutrition held at FAO headquarters from 13 to 15 May 2013.

Agroforestry activities are often gender-differentiated: while men are usually interested in trees and forests for commercial purposes, women tend to favour subsistence benefits -- food, fuelwood, fodder and soil fertility improvement. A review of 104 studies of gender and agroforestry in Africa, cited in the paper, affirms that women’s participation is very high in the production and processing of indigenous fruit and vegetable products. “Women’s knowledge is often critical for household survival, but is rarely recognized in forest management plans,” Stloukal explains.

In many parts of the world, women’s forestry and agroforestry activities are less lucrative than those of men. Tree products such as charcoal, logs, timber, large branches and poles are often considered male domains and in places like the Luo and Luhya communities in western Kenya, women are restricted from harvesting high-value timber trees. “When policy makers and service providers recognize the value of women’s roles in forestry value chains -- as we’ve seen with initiatives involving shea nut butter in Burkina Faso and gum karaya in India -- their incomes can be raised significantly,” says Stloukal.

A number of interrelated cultural, socio-economic and institutional reasons are causing the differences between men’s and women’s opportunities in the forestry sector. They range from the social perceptions of women’s roles and the time women have to spend on domestic responsibilities and childcare to gender disparities in literacy, education, physical abilities, technical skills and access to training and credit services.

Women must not only be represented in forestry institutions, but also accepted as stakeholders with specific views and interests, the FAO paper contends. Empowerment of women through, for example, formal education, training and support for income generation would allow them to have a greater say in transformative decisions. “Efforts to include women in forest-related institutions should be strengthened,” says Stloukal, “because women can help maximize synergies between the forest sector and food security for the benefit of all.”