Bold, new focus for gender equality needed now
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Bold, new focus for gender equality needed now

Some 1.6 billion people in rural areas across the globe depend on forests for their livelihoods. The management of these resources, however, occurs in a socio-cultural power context that significantly impacts the livelihood of forest-dependent communities. Women still are in a position of subjugation due to discriminatory social norms and a lack of resources. For example, according to the United Nations Environment Programme, women produce between 60% and 80% of food while only owning 2% of land worldwide.

As we celebrate the 44th International Women's Day this week and stand in solidarity with women and men allies calling for better rights for women -- we need to acknowledge the fact that gender inequalities in natural resource management still exists.

More importantly, we must acknowledge the fact that these inequalities demand our focused attention now more than ever before.

A recently published brief by the Centre for International Forestry Research's (CIFOR) Global Comparative Study on REDD+, a UN initiative focused on reducing net emissions via improving forest management and governance, shows that women in villages with REDD+ are more likely to experience a decline in their perceived well-being. Women throughout the world who push for gender equality also still face a higher risk of harassment and abuse.

But the discourse is changing (and so is practice) as gender champions are actively showing that governance barriers are not insurmountable. There is now a critical mass of women in Asia who are in leadership positions within the government bureaucracy. In Nepal, which offers one of many examples, a record proportion of women representatives (40.96%) were recently elected to the three-tiered government. Consequently, at both the national and local levels, gender-responsive policies for forest governance are being discussed.

Across the Asia-Pacific, individuals and communities are acknowledging the power of gender equity. For instance, civil society organisations in Thailand are raising their concerns about how the implementation of the new Community Forestry Bill will influence women's access and rights to non-timber forest products and other natural resources. Meanwhile, in the Lao PDR, an entrepreneur is creating sustainable income for ethnic communities through organic tea. And in Indonesia, a professor at the University of Hasanuddin is transforming forestry education by including gender topics in the curriculum.

These emerging trends suggest that gender roles are changing, meaning that as gender moves out of rhetorical policy and into concrete actions, opportunities will arise to create a more equitable world. The time is now to create a balanced and better world and shift the paradigm towards gender equality. Let's not waste it.

But now, more than ever before, a bold focus is needed. Moreover, there is space for the environmental sector to turn the critical mass of women actors into a force that can bring about concrete changes for gender equality. If it does not, an opportunity for progress will be lost.

This space was recently highlighted in a new discussion paper by UN Women and the UN Development Programme (UNDP). The author, Esuna Dugarova, rightfully claims that gender equality "can be a catalytic policy intervention", for achieving the UN's Sustainable development goals, especially related to climate change, natural resource management and food security. "Research shows that women play a pivotal role in natural resource management, and their increased participation leads to improvements in local natural resource governance, conservation efforts and more sustainable livelihoods," Ms Dugarova notes.

Furthermore, in agriculture, providing equal access to productive resources can lead to an increase in crop yields by 20-30% and lift 100-150 million people out of poverty. In her discussion paper, however, Ms Dugarova says that for this catalytic policy intervention to be implemented, there must be a stronger political will and collaboration involving not only national and local governments, but also civil society, the private sector, academia and the media.

In sum, the paradigm must be shifted.

On March 5, a new programme confronting gender inequality was launched in Bangkok, to do just that, acting as a model for future initiatives. WAVES -- Weaving Leadership for Gender Equality functions as a co-creation platform for ideas related to gender equality in forest landscapes by capitalising on these trends. Thirty gender leaders across seven countries and multiple disciplines joined together to create a network focused on generating institutional and transformative change.

These leaders realise that the time is now to create a balanced and better world, and are doing so by using their voices and positions to move the paradigm of gender equality. As we celebrate the 44th Anniversary of International Women's Day, we should too.

Kalpana Giri, PhD, is a senior programme officer at The Centre for People and Forests (RECOFTC) and The Centre's Lead for Social Inclusion and Gender Equality.

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