Enabling poor rural people
to overcome poverty



"Women directly bear the cost of poor participation
in community institutions designed for natural resource management…"

THEME: Women's participation in community organizations that manage natural resources not only is an equity issue, but also affects efficiency and effectiveness.

The IFAD Poverty Report of 2001 notes that women are often excluded from community organizations or committees that manage natural resources such as water or forests, even when the projects are intended to benefit women. This absence of women can have negative impact both on the women and on the effectiveness of the organization.

Negative Effects of Exclusion on Women

The exclusion of women may marginalize women from such valuable assets as:

  • physical assets such as irrigation water or forest products; and
  • human assets, such as training, credit or other benefits earmarked only for the group or organization members.

Exclusion of women from irrigation system Water User Associations ( WUAs) illustrates this point. Women's participation in WUAs and the associated access to irrigation assets is always lower than men's, and where it does exist, tends to be direct, irregular, partial or decreasing over time. There are numerous examples of this from Sri Lanka, India, Pakistan, Nepal, Albania, Armenia, Mali, the Dominican Republic and many other countries. Even women heads of farming households are often excluded. Exclusion creates disadvantages for women engaged in market-oriented production of crops such as vegetables and paddy. Exclusion can also eliminate women from domestic uses of irrigation water, which would save them time and effort. In addition, some WUAs, as under an IFAD project in Armenia, receive considerable capacity-building and training in a variety of useful subjects, which are for members only.

Exclusion of women from forest management committees often results in their needs and interests in forest products being neglected. The report refers to impact of forest protection activities in Indian States of Gujarat and West Bengal. The distance that village women have to travel to collect firewood increased from as little as half a kilometer to 8-9 kilometers. The firewood collection time has increased from 1-2 hours to 4-5 hours for a headload. Wherever possible, women here are shifting to alternative fuels such as agricultural wastes, dung cakes and twigs. The report notes that the negative impact on women, had more to do with women's "lack of voice and bargaining power" in the village protection committee than with availability per se.

Negative Effects of Exclusion on Efficiency and Effectiveness

It is not uncommon for a men-only natural resource management organization to take decisions on issues that affect primarily women, and to receive advice and training on NRM tasks that are implemented by women. An IFAD leasehold forest and forage development project in the hills of Nepal made great efforts to include women in all activities from the beginning, with female-headed households prioritized. However, because their rules stated that there could be only one legal member per household, the forest leasehold groups had mainly male members. Later there was some increase in women's membership, particularly of widows. As men migrated to seek employment, women also sometimes took over the men's activities. However, after the first land development course, it was the group members - primarily males - who received training for the forest maintenance work. However, it is the women who participate more actively. This is so partly because the women visit the forest more for fuel wood and fodder collection, but also for cultural reasons. Women do the pruning and thinning of trees and work in the nursery raising fodder species. Such work requires weeding and watering, which men consider to be women's tasks.

Hope for change

Development programmes have experienced some success in including women in organizations for natural resource management. But it requires considerable effort and, sometimes, prolonged negotiation with village leaders, as evidenced by an IFAD irrigation project in Ghana and another in Mali. Reserving a certain number of memberships for women can result in a purely ceremonial role for women members. Women tend to be silent at WUA meetings or at forest management meetings (as in Nepal), and are rarely elected to leadership positions. But they can become more active over time. Even in the Joint Forest Management committees in Madhya Pradesh, some men are now viewing women's role as useful, seeing it as ensuring women's cooperation in forest protection efforts and as representing women's needs in the committee.

Difficulties of integrating women into village organizations that manage natural resources has led some programmes to establish women-only organizations,, such as women's forest management committees. Elsewhere, programmes are setting ambitious targets for integrating women into mixed-gender organizations. In both cases, women's workload needs to be kept in mind, particularly when membership brings with it time-consuming tasks and responsibilities.

Adapted from:

IFAD. 2001. Rural Poverty Report 2001: The Challenge of Ending Rural Poverty. Oxford University Press. February.

Additional sources:

Suman Subba & Aneela Z. Babar. 2000. Strengthening Gender Initiatives in IFAD Projects: A Case Study of Hills Leasehold Forest and Forage Development Project in Nepal, Rome: IFAD.

Vettivel, Surendra Kumar. 1997. India: Madhya Pradesh Tribal Development Project - Participatory Development Framework, Community Institution Building, Indigenous Social Structure, Women's Participation, Role of NGOs. Rome: IFAD, June.