Mountain women: unsung heroes

Mountain women: unsung heroes

File photo dated Aug 10, 2020 shows a Thai ethnic hill tribe woman works with her hand-craft products to be sold under One Tambon One Product (OTOP)'s community draft project.
File photo dated Aug 10, 2020 shows a Thai ethnic hill tribe woman works with her hand-craft products to be sold under One Tambon One Product (OTOP)'s community draft project.

Whether they live on Mount Kilimanjaro, in the Himalayas, or the Andes, women and girls in mountain communities around the world have much in common: they are often the ones managing daily life in the mountains, as protectors of the land and biodiversity and keepers of traditional knowledge.

Men in these mountain communities often migrate to urban centres for work, leaving the women to deal with the workload back at home. In addition to caring for their families, women manage mountain farms and small-scale businesses.

Their key roles as farmers, market sellers, businesswomen, artisans, entrepreneurs, and community leaders mean they have the potential to contribute hugely to climate change adaptation and conservation of ecosystems and biodiversity, particularly in rural areas.

Yet mountain communities share another commonality. They are among the world's poorest and most marginalised. Social inequalities, gender discrimination, and traditional hierarchies hold mountain women back. They often lack basic rights, have little access to credit, education, social protection schemes and information, and rarely participate in decisions within their own household, let alone more widely.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is the lead UN agency for International Mountain Day, which since 2003 has been observed on Dec 11 to create greater awareness of the importance of mountains to us all and to build alliances for positive change for mountain peoples.

This year -- also proclaimed the United Nations International Year of Sustainable Mountain Development -- the day highlights how "women move mountains" to protect this vital part of our environment and are the unsung heroes of sustainable social, economic and environmental development in mountain areas.

A new report, entitled "Mountain Women of the World: Challenges, Resilience and Collective Power", identifies the diverse challenges faced by mountain women in their different territories and the experiences they share. Produced jointly by FAO, the Mountain Partnership -- a UN voluntary alliance of partners -- and the Feminist Hiking Collective, it reveals results of a global survey and interviews with 304 women from mountains in eight different countries -- a group facing constant discrimination and under extraordinary strain from external pressures in recent years.

Women represent nearly 50% of the rural agricultural workforce in low-income countries, yet 70% of those surveyed reported facing discrimination and 76.7% said they faced additional barriers in their work compared to men.

Almost all interviewees -- 97.6% -- reported feeling the impact of climate change and risk on their life and income, affecting everything from tourism and agriculture to water supplies. The Covid-19 pandemic also slashed incomes by shutting down tourism overnight, further isolating these already marginalised women and exacerbating inequalities.

Yet the Covid-19 crisis also produced a breakthrough for many mountain women, as highlighted in our report. Some 61% told us they connected with other women during the pandemic, some describing the liberating power of support networks, the "she-village" and collective action.

The Feminist Hiking Collective, which helps women become mountain guides despite social constraints, was set up in 2020 -- the year Covid-19 struck -- and has joined forces with several others to form a transnational network, Mountain Women of the World.

Nascent collectives of mountain women have enabled some to become involved in conservation work and mountaineering, which has traditionally been dominated by men, and are lobbying for their rights in all areas. One group secured agreements for female mountain porters to carry lighter loads of supplies and equipment up the slopes than their male counterparts.

A message that resonated loudly at the recent UN Climate Conference (COP27) is that when rural women gain access to resources, services, and opportunities and are given a voice, they can move mountains, become a driving force against hunger, malnutrition, the climate crisis, and rural poverty, and act as agents of change.

We must recognise the extraordinary strength and potential of mountain women and promote the networks that provide them visibility and support.

Collective action and targeted investments are needed at all levels to empower mountain women, close the gender gap, and enable women to continue moving mountains -- stronger than ever.

Maria Helena Semedo is Deputy Director-General, Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.

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