Putting Women at the Helm of Natural Resources Management

Ireen Munyevu, 20, and Judith Katembu, 32, could barely hide their delight at the thought of being elected to serve as Vice Chairperson and Secretary of their respective Village Action Groups, putting them at the helm of community-based structures seeking to improve the sustainable management of natural resources such as land, water, forests and wildlife.

“Prior to my election, I had no say when it comes to decisions in my community. My views were not valid and could not therefore influence a man’s decision in any way, In the past, women were not allowed to serve in leadership positions over men”

Ireen Munyevu – Chairperson , VAGs

Katembu remembers: “During those days, when we attended meetings, we rarely spoke and we were not given the chance to ask questions. Only the men did the talking and decided what was good for us. Men are held as heads of households while women are housewives, responsible for fetching water, taking care of the children and cooking food.”

Like other women, Munyevu and Katembu had no choice but to comply with decisions made by their husbands - or by their fathers and brothers. Such decisions, in many instances, resulted in degrading natural resources which negatively affects women’s economic status.

This predicament reflects how entrenched patriarchal attitudes in Zambia held back women’s rights in decision making regarding natural assets which took no account of their interests, needs and concerns. 

“Such practices are detrimental to the management of natural assets as they silence women who may have valuable knowledge and leadership to offer”

Mandisa Mashologu - Country Director , UNDP Zambia

In Zambia, the impact of natural resource loss and degradation disproportionately affects poor rural women because of their dependence on natural resources, especially women who live in ecologically vulnerable areas.

Women face barriers to their inclusion in governance systems, decision making and benefit sharing related to natural resource management that marginalize their roles, contributions and rights. These barriers stem from policy, economic status, societal norms and cultural practices.

Women constitute 51 percent of the country’s nearly 14 million people, but men still dominate the political landscape, and the issue of violence against women and girls is of great concern. Activists say socially, and culturally constructed norms and roles have shaped gender relations, leading to unequal power relations. Women have substantially less access to health care and education services than men and are vastly under-represented at all levels of government.

Aiming to tackle these issues, a UNDP-supported project – Strengthening Management Effectiveness and Generating Multiple Environmental Benefits Within and Around the Greater Kafue National Park and West Lunga National Park in Zambia - is working with rural communities to collectively manage natural assets as a shared resource and responsibility.

The initiative is a partnership between UNDP and the Government of Zambia through the Forestry Department, under the Ministry of Lands and Natural Resources and the Department of National Parks and Wildlife at the Ministry of Tourism and Arts. It is being funded by the Global Environment Facility (GEF).

The Village Action Groups meet regularly to discuss how to use their land sustainably and, little by little, the community forests are coming alive with environmentally-friendly activities, ranging from honey production to the regeneration of community forests. 

Members of the community are also farming more sustainably by using crop rotation and other techniques that keep land fertile, in addition to cutting back on and managing slash-and-burn agriculture, a traditional practice that leads to uncontrollable bush fires that damage huge swathes of land. Through the Village Action Groups, local communities are beginning to have serious conversations about protecting wildlife and conserving their forests - making sure that they do not gradually destroy their precious natural resources.

The project has promoted rural women as leaders of farming cooperatives and small-scale companies and trained them as community managers of the natural resources around them. As a result, more rural women in the project areas have acquired technical environmental and agricultural knowledge and are now performing tasks previously considered suitable only for men.

Christine Musonoyi, 54, Secretary of Shalamba Village Action Groups in Kalumbila District said women in her community are now keen to accept management responsibility because they see the long-term economic benefits of sustainable utilisation, and they are willing to invest time and resources in natural resource management, in a significantly proactive way.

Since the UNDP intervention, Munyevu, Katembu and Musonoyi said traditional attitudes on the role of women are no longer holding them back. They have become change agents, inspiring other women and girls in an ongoing effort to navigate traditional practices and become leaders in the communities. They are also providing hands-on support to fellow women in resolving immediate domestic disputes.

For women in these rural communities, their involvement in the responsible management of the natural resources has made a big difference, providing a sense of security and leadership, which means they are investing more into protecting their environment and curbing climate change.

Since the formation of the Village Action Groups, there has been an upsurge in the number of women elected to decision making roles. These women leaders are on the frontline encouraging community dwellers not to destroy the forest by the hunting and poaching of endangered wildlife and logging – suggesting beekeeping as one of the greener alternatives for making a living.

Already, the Government of Zambia has put a premium on community managed resources. This shift stemmed from the demand to look at the redistributive potential of natural resources management in addressing poverty, gender inequality and environmental sustainability.

Zambia is a success story in harnessing its natural resource wealth but it is recommended that further policy adjustments are needed to meet new challenges.

 “More systematic inclusion of women and gender aspects into environmental and conservation efforts has the potential to create positive impacts on poverty alleviation, natural resource management and the empowerment of women.”

Mandisa Mashologu - Country Director, UNDP Zambia

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