What Women Mean to a Sustainable Nepal

A Grandmother and her granddaughter in their field in Humla, where there is chronic food insecurity, 2010. All Photos: Kashish Das Shrestha

A Grandmother and her granddaughter in their field in Humla, where there is chronic food insecurity, 2010. All Photos: Kashish Das Shrestha

Today is International Women’s Day 2013, and so media around the world has been running various stories on women and development as they have all week.

Here, let’s visit a topic that is rarely highlighted in the domestic media: Nepal needs to develop sustainably and address its massive food insecurity and the steadily growing climate related natural disasters. For this, there is no escaping the fact that it will have to count on Nepali women to make it happen.

The last decade has seen countless studies and reports on the crucial role of women in ensuring the sustainability of this planet in multiple ways. There is growing evidence for the same in Nepal too: that investing in women’s role in natural resource management and food security, for example, can have tremendous positive outcomes.

Yet, of the 18,000 community forest user groups in Nepal which represents about 40% of the country’s population, only a little over 5% are led or managed by women. This, despite the fact that women members make up a significant portion of the 18,000 groups’ overall membership.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations notes that “Research suggests that trees and forests are more important to rural women’s livelihoods than to those of men. In Madagascar poor women in one community earned 37% of their income from forest products, compared to 22% earned by men. In Andhra Pradesh, 77% of women’s income in some areas was derived from forests.”

You can read that entire document here.

In 2009, when I edited and published the single volume 350Journal on contemporary environment issues in Nepal, I had requested Hari Bansha Dulal to share his understanding of the role women have in the climate change context. Mr. Dulal is a Washington DC based Resource Analyst and has a PhD in Environmental Science and Public Policy from George Mason University. In his essay for the journal, Women and Climate Change, he wrote of their vulnerabilities:

“Women and children are 14 times more likely to die during a climatic event compared to men.  As the effects of climate change become more pronounced and climate induced extreme events become more frequent, women will become victims in greater number unless their vulnerability is reduced.”

A young girl pumps water at the Koshi Flood Refugee Camp in eastern Nepal, 2010. The flood of August 18, 2008, burst the Koshi dam and had changed the river’s course back to the way it was almost 100 years ago. It displaced tens of thousands of people, forcing them to live in refugee camps. More than 36,000 bighas (approx 58,500 acres) of farmland on either side of the highway was replaced with a layer of sand several feet deep.

A young girl pumps water at the Koshi Flood Refugee Camp in eastern Nepal, 2010. The flood of August 18, 2008, burst the Koshi dam and had changed the river’s course back to the way it was almost 100 years ago. It displaced tens of thousands of people, forcing them to live in refugee camps. More than 36,000 bighas (approx 58,500 acres) of farmland on either side of the highway was replaced with a layer of sand several feet deep.

And he wrote why those vulnerabilities must be reduced in countries like Nepal:

“Women are repository of traditional knowledge, which will be increasingly crucial for a country like Nepal, which has limited resources and weaker institutions, to combat threats posed by climate change. Women are the stewards of nature as they are primarily engaged in agriculture and forestry sectors. So tapping their knowledge is important if resiliency of agriculture and forestry sectors is to be maintained, if not enhanced.”

A woman sifts the family's winter harvest on her rooftop in Juphal, Dolpa, 2010. This region of Nepal suffers through recurring food insecurity.

A woman sifts the family’s winter harvest on her rooftop in Juphal, Dolpa, 2010. This region of Nepal suffers through recurring food insecurity.

On August 2012, the Guardian newspaper published an article titled “Nepal’s female farmers need research and technology aimed at them” and wrote, “Researchers must take greater account of the needs of women, who are increasingly at the forefront of agriculture.”

Not too long after that article was published, I had the opportunity to see what can happen when women are given the resources they need. As I traveled through Western Nepal to film and produce a video for USAID-Nepal on a project called Education for Income Generation, I was pleasantly surprised at how effective the program had been in transforming the lives of thousands of women, and therefore thousands of families and entire communities.

There, I met women who told me they couldn’t even speak in public before but were now agro-entrepreneurs paying for their children’s education and expanding their businesses. Another woman’s farm had helped pay for a new home and the family was considering buying a car soon. Some of the women’s farms were doing so much business that it made sense for their husbands working as migrant workers to come back home and work alongside the wife! You can read about it here. The stories in this short video, “Opportunities Created, Lives Transformed,” of how investing in women and women farmers can change so much so wonderfully is worth the watch.

Another development partner, DIFD-Nepal, also has projects that work with women farmers. While I have never personally seen their work in this sector, I was recently directed by the organization’s twitter account to a document that outlines their work in Nepal. In it, I found a section that says this:

“Women play a key role in vegetables farming. Because of the out-migration of male youths it is women that are primarily involved in production and marketing. Women frequently control the income earned and become participants in economic and community life in more prominent ways.”

In the last four or five years of my travels through the mountain, hill and terai districts of Nepal, I have always marveled at how women are indeed seemingly at the forefront of interacting with natural resource at a day-to-day level, even if they may not have been included its “management,” as I mentioned earlier in this post. To put it simply, women work the fields and the farm, they collect the water and the firewood. Then, it is those very women who also combine the results of those activities in their kitchens. Following are a few images that speak to what I have witnessed:

In the plains of western Nepal, a group of women head out to fish in the local river and waterways, 2010.

In the plains of western Nepal, a group of women head out to fish in the local river and waterways, 2010.

A woman returns home after collecting water at dusk in western Nepal, 2010.

A woman returns home after collecting water at dusk in western Nepal, 2010.

A group of women gather to fix a water pipe and collect water on the banks of the Bagmati river in Kathmandu city, 2010.

A group of women gather to fix a water pipe and collect water on the banks of the Bagmati river in Kathmandu city, 2010.

A group of young girls head out to collect fodder on a Saturday morning in Bardiya of Western Nepal, 2005.

A group of young girls head out to collect fodder on a Saturday morning in Bardiya of Western Nepal, 2005.

Two women till their fields in the outskirts of Kathmandu city, 2010.

Two women till their fields in the outskirts of Kathmandu city, 2010.

A group of women harvest their crops on a warm November morning in Sunsari district, eastern Nepal, 2012.

A group of women harvest their crops on a warm November morning in Sunsari district, eastern Nepal, 2012.

At an event hosted today to mark the International Women’s Day in in Kathmandu, Nepal, Judy Ogelthorpe, Chief of Party of USAID-funded Hariyo Ban Program, noted:

“With the rise of active participation of women in natural resource management, the risk of gender based violence, both physical and physcological, has also greatly increased. And compared to gender based violence in other sectors, violence in natural resource management is rarely highlighted or talked about in our media.”

An important part Hariyo Ban, whose “over all goal is to reduce climate change impacts and threats to bio-diversity,” is its Gender and Social Inclusion Component that “seeks to empower both men and women to challenge and change deeply rooted inequalities.”

She also argued:

“As more and more young men leave the hills for jobs in Nepal’s cities and other countries, women’s role in managing forests become ever more important. So, it is very important to empower them to have a stronger voice in forest management.”

Online Resources:

Here are a few resources that I would recommend you look into if you want a better sense of just what role Women have had in Natural Resource management in Nepal, and why it is so important. If you have any suggestions, feel free to reccomend and I will try to include it here as an update.

In this Department of Forest’s Page on Community Forestry, it appears someone actually forgot to fill in the blank left for the figure representing the composition of  “women only committee members.” But this page does give you the sense of just how large the Community Forestry program is in Nepal.

“About 1.45 million households or 35 percent of the population of Nepal is involved in community forestry management program. To date, 17,685 Community Forestry User Groups (CFUGs) have been formed of which __ are composed of women only committee members. A total of 1,652,654 hectares of National forest have been handed over as community forests and 2,177,858 households have benefited”

Case Study: Gender and Climate Change in the Hindu Kush Himalayas of Nepal, commissioned by the Women’s Environment and Development Organization “as an input into its Gender and Climate Change Workshop in Dakar, Senegal, in June 2008, and in preparation for the launch of an advocacy pilot project to mainstream gender into climate change policy-making and activity implementation in developing countries.” The study “relays basic information about climate change in Nepal, it examines the conditions under which the women in Nepal live, and it makes recommendations for future action.”

HIMAWANTI-Nepal is an “NGO dedicated to uplift rural women through natural resources conservation & Management.” You can find out more about their work here.

Women Organizing for Change in Agriculture & Natural Resource Management is also working in Nepal. You can find about more about their work here.

Last year this time, on March 8, the United Nations Environment Program had also run a news titled “Strengthening Role of Rural Women in Managing Natural Resources Can Enhance Peacebuilding, Say Experts.” It’s worth revisiting.

At the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, you can read about why “Understanding gender dimensions of natural resources management is a starting point for reversing environmental degradation.”

 

 

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