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ASIA: Activists Press for Gender Equality in Forest Tenure Reforms

Amantha Perera

LOMBOK, Indonesia, Jul 13 2011 (IPS) - A 1993 forest act gave back Nepal its green hills, many believe. Activists say the law was also a catalyst for positive change in an area not readily linked with it – women’s rights in rural Nepal.

Woman works in family garden next to forest in village of Pillumallai in eastern Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Woman works in family garden next to forest in village of Pillumallai in eastern Sri Lanka. Credit: Amantha Perera/IPS

Kalpana Giri, the gender and governance specialist with Forest Action Nepal, a think tank working on natural resources management, told IPS that the act, which created community forests, was a prime mover in bringing the voices of Nepal’s rural women into public fora.

“It opened the door for women to come into public dialogue, it gave women a space,” Giri told IPS on the sidelines of an international forest tenure conference taking place in Lombok, an island about 1060 km south of Jakarta.

But the unexpected result of rural women finding their public voice through a land reform process was a rare success, when such reforms also guaranteed, and in this instance actually furthered, gender equality.

“There is no specific recognition of women as a specific stakeholder group that will be affected (by reforms),” said Abidah Setyowati from the Women Organising for Change in Agriculture, a global network promoting gender equality and sustainable development.

“There is really minimal participation of women in the decision-making process,” she said.

In their traditional role, women are not looked at as leaders, especially in Asia, according to Apsara Chapagain, chairperson of the Federation of Community Forestry Users, Nepal (FECOFUN). “Social attitudes towards women do not recognise them as leaders,” she said.

Even when reforms have worked to the benefit of rural communities, the same process can undermine women’s rights. This is true in the case of China, where land tenure reforms have allowed communities ownership of forest land.

The reforms there have not taken gender concerns into consideration, according to Li Ping, senior attorney at the Landesa Rural Development Institute that works on land rights research and advocacy.

Li said there was confusion over how to partition land after a divorce or when women are widowed. When they are married, the majority of rural Chinese women relocate to their spouse’s home village, which leaves them in an unenviable situation if they are divorced or widowed.

“Women need to have enough courage to stand up against their own households,” he said.

Giri agrees with the assessment that unless policies are drafted taking gender sensitivities into consideration, women will be victimised.

She told IPS that in addition to laws governing land ownership, local customs, traditions and practices largely determine women’s role in land ownership. “There are so many things that will determine how and where a woman stands in all these things; we have to take all of them into consideration.”

Experts say that most land reform policies are developed taking the community as a whole, without taking gender issues into account.

Giri faced a tough task in Nepal when she lobbied donors, decision-makers and politicians to consider women’s issues within the area of land reform. “Most of them did not look at land reform as a gender issue, they looked at it from a much more general community-based position.”

In Nepal at least, activists like Giri and Chapagain have been able to make some headway.

The constitutional changes that are taking place in the South Asian country have allowed activists to engage in an ongoing dialogue with decision-makers. Within the community forest programme, 33 percent representation is set aside for women on executive committees. And at least 35 percent of the total income from community forests is allocated to disadvantaged women.

But both feel more needs to be done to build wider awareness. Giri told IPS that most men resisted dialogue during workshops where gender equality focused on talking about women’s rights.

“Maybe we should talk about gender rights or rights of the community,” she said. Forest Action has also highlighted cases where women’s role has become important without any outside intervention or special emphasis. One such case occurred in parts of eastern Nepal where rural migration of men left women not only to work in the forests but also to make decisions about them.

“The interesting part was that the women told us that they were doing the same kind of work before the men migrated to the cities in search of work. The only difference now was that they were more visible as decision-makers.”

Li feels that women, especially in rural areas, hardly have knowledge of land rights. “There should be grassroots-level programmes to make them aware.”

He also said that when women gain ownership or decision-making power, they tend to spend the income on the family. “There are no gambling or drinking issues, most of the time,” he said. “But there needs to be tenure security,” he added.

The experience in Nepal has prompted activists not to stop at just getting women’s voices heard. “The next step is to figure out what roles they should play in the decision-making process,” Giri said.

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