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Women's Leadership in Conservation and Peace

It used to be a luxury to talk about the environment when you were addressing conflict. Today, “we recognize it’s not a luxury anymore,” said Liz Hume, senior director for programs at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, at the Wilson Center on April 29. Similarly, gender dynamics are now being recognized as playing a critical role in sustainable development and peacebuilding.

Date & Time

Apr. 29, 2016
9:30am – 11:30am ET


5th Floor, Woodrow Wilson Center
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It used to be a luxury to talk about the environment when you were addressing conflict. Today, “we recognize it’s not a luxury anymore,” said Liz Hume, senior director for programs at the Alliance for Peacebuilding, at the Wilson Center on April 29. Similarly, gender dynamics are now being recognized as playing a critical role in sustainable development and peacebuilding.

“When people’s livelihoods, when their access to exercising political voice, when their…access to social services, employment, and their basic ability to live on their land is taken away, you create a vacuum in which you can have extremists come and exploit that sense of insecurity,” said Mayesha Alam, assistant director of the Georgetown Institute for Women, Peace, and Security. “And always it is the women’s rights that are trampled on first.”

Women also face higher levels of vulnerability to climate change than men. “Climate change worsens the cycle of poverty and vulnerability for women and girls,” said Alam, but “they are also agents with important perspectives and indigenous knowledge, which can inform and influence solutions to address these issues. In many communities…women are already having to adapt their lives to survive and to care for their dependents.”

“These Are Champions”

The Alto Mayo Protected Forest in San Martin, Peru, is one of the tropical forests described as “the Earth’s lungs,” absorbing vast quantities of carbon dioxide and converting it into oxygen. Unfortunately, the region experiences significant deforestation each year because of human development, said Milagros Sandoval, manager of environmental policy at Conservation International Peru.

Conservation International Peru works to facilitate sustainable natural resource management and conservation by framing environmental issues as a threat to economic stability and building the capacity of local communities to set their own priorities.

During their work, the organization “identified that without addressing gender we could benefit only some,” said Sandoval, creating divisions within and between communities. These divisions carry the potential of creating conflict and interfering with the success and sustainability of conservation programs.

In Shampuyacu, a village near the Alto Mayo Protected Forest, Sandoval described a group of women who “identified that the loss of their forest was impacting negatively their livelihoods as well as the intergenerational transmission of their traditional knowledge.”

The Shampuyacu women approached community leaders and successfully established a section of forest preserved exclusively for use by women and children. There the women teach younger generations about local plants that are disappearing, and with the help of Conservation International’s technical expertise, have been able to preserve many species and increase community food security.

Not all women have the agency of those in Shampuyacu. “These are empowered women, these are champions of conservation,” Sandoval said. “But this is not the case in all the landscapes and all rural areas of my country. Many people disregard, as my colleagues have said, the contribution of women to households [and] to societies in general.”

“I am no gender expert,” said Sandoval, “they are the ones who have taught me a lot of these issues during the past five years.”

At the Center of the Storm

In many parts of the world, women bear significant burdens related to climate change, said Eleanor Blomstrom, program director and head of office at Women’s Environment and Development Organization, an international advocacy organization that works at the intersection of environmental justice, conservation, human rights, and gender equality.

Climate change worsens the cycle of poverty and vulnerability

“Women are…more likely to die during and in the aftermath of disaster because they are less likely to have access to early warning monitors, less likely to have survival skills, or the freedom of movement,” said Alam. General socio-economic marginalization means many women can’t access relief services or get compensation for lost assets.

If displaced, women face higher threats to their physical, mental, and emotional safety, while bearing responsibility for their dependents, Alam said.

Meanwhile, “women are forgotten in terms of climate change adaptation and mitigation initiatives all too often,” she said. “Or when they are considered, they are perceived as perpetual victims and merely beneficiaries of assistance.”

Although there are provisions for the inclusion of women in many international agreements, such goals do not address the underlying systemic issues, said Blomstrom. A statement or paragraph in an agreement does not resolve the obstacles that have blocked participation for so long.

Helping women farmers adapt to climate change is of particular concern to many. “Women make up the majority of small hold farmers around the world, and they are in many ways the backbone of the global agricultural workforce,” said Alam.

“Failing to address women’s needs in climate change policy threatens global food security,” she said, while bringing women farmers into environmental governance and climate change conversations could increase yields.

“Group Multipliers”

During outbreaks of violence and political instability, women face unique threats but they also play little-recognized roles in the outcome.

Liz Hume looked into research by Maria Stephan and Erica Chenoweth on the success of violent versus nonviolent political campaigns from 1900 to 2006. Of the 323 campaigns analyzed, she noticed that participants in the successful nonviolent campaigns were mostly women and young people.

Hume experienced the effect women and youth engagement can have on conflict while working in the Casamance region of Senegal with USAID, where civil war raged for more than three decades.

“Always it is the women’s rights that are trampled on first”

“Women and youth groups were significant ‘group multipliers,’ coming together to hold political candidates accountable to their political party platforms on peace,” she said. “They were working together, willing to stand up and say ‘enough of the violence, let me tell you how it is impacting us.’”

The United Nations Security Council acknowledges the importance of protecting women from violence and discrimination during conflict and the role women can play in peacebuilding and general governance through Resolution 1325, passed in 2000. The resolution highlights four main goals for states in conflict or post-conflict settings: preventing violence against women, equal participation in governance, protecting women’s human rights, and ensuring women’s ability to act as agents of relief and recovery.

“Those same principles very much apply, and objectives apply, to the issues we are talking about in terms of environmental degradation and conservation,” said Hume. “There is a dire need to come together and apply across sectors and across frameworks.”

Guarding Progress, Avoiding the Polluted Stream

Even with Resolution 1325 and the international community committing to gender inclusion in many climate and environmental responses, there is a significant disconnect between policy and practice.

The inclusion and protection of women in environmental decision-making and peacebuilding requires shifting social values and norms, which will take time, particularly since gender roles can be such a contentious issue.

“From 1992 to 2011 only nine percent of negotiators at peace tables were women,” said Hume. “That is where the decision making is happening.”

Empowerment should be a focus of conservation groups, said Sandoval, to give community members the tools to stand up for themselves and demand a seat at the table. “We definitely must acknowledge that all the work we’ve done and the progress we’ve made so far can be erased at any minute if we don’t keep working and building capacities of local stakeholders,” she said.

It’s not only the inclusion of women in these processes that’s needed, but fundamental changes to how they’re carried out, said Blomstrom. “Women will not be mainstreamed into a polluted stream,” she said, quoting former U.S. Congresswoman and women’s rights advocate, Bella Abzug.

In order for gender integration to be successful it has to be clear “we don’t tack this paragraph on at the end,” said Hume. “We want you talking about it in the design, in the analysis, and we want to see it all the way through [the program].”

As the effects of climate change are compounded, such changes may prove critical to weathering the storm.

“The point of resilience is to empower people and communities in a way that they can withstand shock,” said Alam. “Not only that you get people out of dire poverty, but that you get them to a place where if a hurricane hits or if there is suddenly an outbreak of conflict that they don’t go backwards… Absolutely gender mainstreaming and all efforts related to resilience building is critical, not just from an equality standpoint, but equally important, if not more important, from an operational effectiveness standpoint.”

Event Resources:

Written by Adrienne Bober, edited by Schuyler Null.

Hosted By

Environmental Change and Security Program

The Environmental Change and Security Program (ECSP) explores the connections between environmental change, health, and population dynamics and their links to conflict, human insecurity, and foreign policy.  Read more

Global Women's Leadership Initiative

The Global Women’s Leadership Initiative has hosted the Women in Public Service Project at the Wilson Center since June, 2012. The Women in Public Service Project will accelerate global progress towards women’s equal participation in policy and political leadership to create more dynamic and inclusive institutions that leverage the full potential of the world’s population to change the way global solutions are forged.  Read more

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