Why participation isn’t enoughWomen’s participation in decision making may not mean they are truly empowered.
Women are active users of forests, when it comes to the collection of forestry products for daily household use. Although the primary users, women have long been denied a seat on the decision-making table when it comes to determining the proper use of the forest. Historically, due to the patriarchal structure of society, minimal attention was paid to poor and marginalised communities, including women. However, the use of community forests has set out to change that by adopting policies that transformed the role of women from passive receivers of the decision to active decision-makers. This has resulted in many women, especially in rural Nepal, being able to actively participate in decision making. However, does the elevation of women to decision making roles mean that they are truly empowered?
The community forest programme, which started in the 1980s, is one of the most successful models for the conservation of forests in Nepal. A community forest is a method of preserving forests through the decentralisation of power to the local people around the forest area. The crucial aspect of this method is the participation of local communities to create specific guidelines to determine the use of the forest. Nearly 30 percent of the total forest area in Nepal is under community forest management, and 48 percent of the remaining is potential land for community forests.
Nepal is a party to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women and the UN Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous People. The impact of signing such treaties is reflected especially in the forestry sector. The Ninth Five-Year National Development Plan (1997-2002) formally recognised women as the primary users of community forests. The Forestry Sector Master Plan (1988) was the key plan which developed Nepal's forest sector by requiring that women make up 50 percent of the executive committee in all Community Forest User Groups. Simultaneously, it was mandated that in all households, one man and one woman must be on the list of members of the community forest in the area. Although these policies successfully brought Nepali women to the decision-making table, are the women able to fully exercise this newfound power? Perhaps not, and the reason being rigid gender relations.
Gender relations refers to the power relationship between men and women that stems from patriarchal gender roles. The power relation held by women has predominantly been that of a subordinate one due to the historical patriarchy in Nepal. The prime focus of community forest policies is to provide equal access and opportunity for women to voice their opinions, but the quality of such involvement is largely unaddressed. Providing women access and control over resources is essential, but it is also important to analyse if such control has translated into women holding power. In the context of community forests, different powers can be found at play as it sets the narrative towards deciding who participates and on what terms. Participatory exclusion is present in the context of Nepal as women and the poor remain excluded, despite the discourse of inclusion. The prime evidence of this exclusion is the quality of forests handed to women-only user groups.
Out of the 14,000 Forest User Groups in Nepal, less than 5 percent are women-only ones. By viewing the data collected by the Department of Forests, we can find strong evidence of patriarchal practices of gender relations. In the case of the Shrijansil women-only Forest User Group of Bijuwar, the District Forest Office decided to split the mixed forest user groups into women-only and men-only groups to hand over the remaining common forest land. After the split, the men received 49 hectares of forests while the women received only 11 hectares. This case serves as an example of power play within the organisation where open disparity exists between women-only and men-only groups. Yet another case is that of the Pahiro women-only forest user group, where the district office gave the women 20 hectares in a landslide-prone area as other mixed groups rejected the land. Being allocated such disaster-prone land is a massive disadvantage as it can barely produce anything of value. And even if something is produced, it will hold little value in the long run.
These two examples are only a few of many others that internally foster gender-based discrimination. Women-only user groups receive forests that are in much worse condition than those allocated to mixed user groups. Studies reveal that around 50 percent of women-only forest user groups held less than 10 hectare of land and often the lands were barren. Therefore, while policies do provide space for women at the decision-making table, such change hasn’t fully materialised into women being able to wield that power for their collective interest. The unchanged patriarchal power dynamic between men and women means that women’s voices are still largely ignored.
Gender distinct policies
Prominent feminist author Naila Kabeer defines empowerment as the processes by which those who have been denied the ability to make choices acquire such an ability. Although those who hold the ability to choose from the get-go may be powerful, empowerment lies in the transition from being unable to being able. Using this lens, we can see that some empowerment has been achieved as the historical exclusion of women from the decision-making table has been rectified. But such empowerment is hollow if the power dynamic between men and women remains unchanged. Nonetheless, the government's recognising the importance of creating gender distinct policies is a huge step in the right direction.
Statistically, women-only forest user groups are in high number, showcasing that women leadership and management is advancing in rural Nepal. Nevertheless, such improvements can turn into a tokenistic approach, as a closer look reveals that gender relations still prevent women from receiving equal treatment. Though visible legal power may exist for women in the community forest sector, their participation hasn’t fully resulted in empowerment. While the positive legal changes should be celebrated; we must learn to measure empowerment beyond simply participation if we want the policies created for women to fully cater to them.