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Opinion

Earth Hour reminds us tackling climate change needs gender equality

We need to boost role of women in forestry and agriculture in Asia

| Southeast Asia
A local woman plows sand before planting in the desert in Wuwei, China: the number of women included in planting trees can no longer be an acceptable indicator of success.   © Getty Images

Forests are vital to tackling climate change. But if we are to succeed in our efforts to save the Earth, we must think beyond conservation, biodiversity and the number of planted trees. We must make gender equality a core business.

As Earth Hour approaches on Saturday, when people around the world switch off their nonessential lights from 8.30pm, wherever they are, for an hour to raise awareness of climate change, we must turn our attention to the role gender equality plays.

When world leaders committed to the Beijing Declaration at the end of the U.N.'s Fourth World Conference on Women 25 years ago, they put gender equality squarely in the spotlight, improving the status of women to overcome imbalances in inclusion and social justice.

We expected that, following this, governments and the U.N. would reframe forestry, agriculture, manufacturing and other sectors with a gender agenda to rebalance power relations between the sexes and among socioeconomic classes by tackling the root causes of inequalities.

But we have failed to achieve our goals, most especially in the environmental and forestry sectors where I work.

According to U.N. Women, 39% of employed women are working in agriculture, forestry and fisheries globally, but only 14% of agricultural landholders are women. The policies that allow injustices like this are not changing fast enough because women are moving at a snail's pace into governing positions where they have influence.

I believe we have failed because our commitment to equality was not matched by investment, by dedicated expertise and by enabling organizational environments.

Instead of changing forestry initiatives to better address gender equity in countries and communities, we have been just counting women and ticking the boxes.

This failure is most visible in our response to climate change, where we tend to emphasize strategies to include women rather than strategies that benefit women. For instance, we focus on planting a certain number of hectares with trees, with women involved in planting and maybe in associated training.

But we often do not know how those hectares of planted trees will translate into better lives for women and other marginalized groups. And we do not know whether the power of women to combat and adapt to climate change is being tapped.

A woman carries firewood from Niyamgiri hill range near Lanjigarh, India: we often do not know how planted trees will translate into better lives for women.   © Reuters

In forestry, our priorities are equally questionable. We continue to focus on improving timber production by involving more women, but we have not adapted our standard operating and technical practices to reduce the harmful norms and behaviors that perpetuate or exacerbate inequalities for women, girls and other marginalized groups.

At the Regional Community Forestry Training Center for Asia and the Pacific, or RECOFTC, an international not-for-profit organization centered on policies for sustainable forest management, we believe in a world where people live equitably in and beside healthy forests. We work through community forestry, which goes beyond forests or wood production to include the rights, livelihoods and empowerment of women and other marginalized people.

Within forest landscapes, we contribute to meeting the guiding call of the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development to leave no one or the environment behind as development marches on.

If we truly want to meet the goals of the 2030 Agenda and turn the tide on the climate crisis, gender equality must be a fundamental objective within all forestry and environmental initiatives and investments. This is decades overdue.

All of us, governments, donors, nonprofit organizations and the partnerships we build, must work harder to achieve equality between the sexes in leadership, representation and access to and influence over the allocation of resources.

Governments and donors must finally provide sufficient investment of financial resources for this aim. Otherwise, the commitments of long ago and regularly reaffirmed will continue to ring hollow.

Between 2010 and 2014, according to data from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, 31% of the $26 billion bilateral official development assistance for climate finance mentioned gender equality, but only 3% made gender equality a principle objective. We must do better.

The number of women included in training or in planting trees can no longer be an acceptable indicator of success. Money should only be invested in activities that increase income for women and other marginalized people and overcome the social barriers that constrain their leadership.

Finally, gender equality must become the core business of governments, development cooperation and investments in combating climate change. Recognizing that gender equality is the only way to move forward, governments and donors must ensure that their investments go to initiatives that change the social norms and behaviors that perpetuate inequality.

Equality between men and women and within economic strata will lead to more equitable resource management and healthier, more resilient forests. Increased women's participation will lead to improvements in local natural resource governance, conservation efforts, sustainable livelihoods and lives lived with security and dignity.

Kalpana Giri is a social-environmental specialist at RECOFTC, an international not-for-profit organization that supports policy and capacity building for equitable and sustainable forest management in the Asia Pacific region.

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