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IS THERE A PLACE FOR GENDER IN CONSERVATION?

Megan Murison, Endangered Wildlife Trust Communications Officer, meganm@ewt.org.za

Why should we, as conservationists, be concerned about gender issues? If our mandate is species and habitat conservation, why and how do we incorporate gender without overstepping our mark? While it may appear to some as if gender and conservation are two completely isolated topics, the nexus between the two is undeniable. Gender inequality and environmental degradation have been linked – in areas where human inequality is high, so is ecological degradation. The impact that gender has on conservation should not be understated nor ignored.

So, what is gender? Unlike the biology of the different sexes, gender roles, behaviours, and the relations between women and men are dynamic. Gender is quite complicated, as it determines the socially constructed assigned roles, practices and opportunities given to certain genders by society. It is also essential to note that gender issues do not mean women issues, and we must try to understand the needs of all members of communities we work with, both men and women.

Our understanding of the connections between gender and the environment is broadening as more research is bringing women into the dialogues around resource use, indigenous knowledge, and decision-making processes. Gender plays a massive role in how women and men interact with the environment around them, concerning land, resource rights, career advancement, salary opportunities at work, and opportunities to participate in and influence decision-making processes.

But why should we, as conservation organisations, care? Long-term outcomes. Women account for 50% of the population, and their voices (knowledge, opinions, experiences, perspectives) need to be included in the conservation conversation. If we were to only listen to 50% of stakeholders, our actions would never be effective or sustainable. They may even cause other harmful effects. A study by Leisher et al. (2016) shows how the inclusivity of women in forest and fishery management groups had positive impacts on conservation targets in these sectors.

Another example is the plight of period poverty. Period poverty is a global sanitation issue and a barrier to the education of girl children. Sanitation and water use are linked, and the link with education may not be as obvious but understanding this link is vital for any progress to be made. Overall, including women and providing for and enabling equal rights and opportunities for basic education, positive progress can be made on environmental issues such as climate change and climate resilience, family planning, habitat resilience, and equality in the greater social community. As they say, knowledge is power.

Conservation initiatives should not be limited in scope and consideration to species and habitats, but also give voice to gender equality and equity issues. We as conservation organisations need to effectively include gender in all of our dialogues, as without the active, equal participation of women and men in all aspects of the work we pride ourselves on, we will never be able to move forward.