Working for a more Gender sensitive Forestry Sector

Saraswati is 32 years old and works as an Assistant Forest Officer, with the Ministry of Forests and Environment in Nepal. She has worked in the forest sector for 10 years. She was born and brought up in a rural area 500 km from Kathmandu and from her early childhood she saw how her family was dependent on the forest for fodder, firewood and timber. “I used to go with my mother to search for firewood in the nearby forest. I still remember my father cutting down the pine we had on our property for timber, to use for building our house,” Saraswati recalls. From her childhood village, Saraswati got the love of nature and forests and this made her decide to get a forestry college education and join a profession that is still largely dominated by men.

Saraswati’s job is to advise so-called Community Forest User Groups, groups of local villagers who apply and get formal rights to use state forest areas and who are responsible for managing the assigned forest area sustainably. She also advises local private forest owners.

Saraswati feels that she has an extra advantage in dealing with the groups compared to her male colleagues: “Being a woman, I can understand the issues of the marginalized groups. I try to really listen to what the community people are saying and to understand their perspective in forestry.” She feels that her male colleagues are often too used to being privileged and that this makes them less eager to understand the local people who are often from underprivileged groups. The effect is that most of her male colleagues resort to “business as usual.”

Even though women can now be job holders society has not changed and because of this women are facing ”time poverty”. They have to do the household chores as well as work in the forestry sector. 

A man with a moustache

According to Saraswati, gender-based discrimination exists everywhere in the forest sector in Nepal. “I have faced many different forms of harassment since I became a student at the Institute of Forestry. From being not recognized for my profession, to not being trusted for my work and being verbally abused. And sadly, it continues,” Sarawati explains. She emphasizes that there are actually several legal provisions that give opportunities for women in the forestry sector, but she feels that the implementation of the laws is lacking. Among other things because the culture still favors men.

Saraswati believes that to make a change, there should be more women in the decision making levels of the sector: “Women are the primary users of the forest, but they are not very well represented in the decision making positions in the forestry sector, neither in government services, nor in local NGOs, international NGOs or civil society. There are more female foresters in junior positions, but we have only two women who work in the Ministry of Forests and Environment. Similarly, the number of women in the Community Forest User Group committees who make decisions about the forest is increasing, but still the numbers are far from equal. In relation to private forestry, the problem is that the land is hardly ever registered in the name of the woman, which means that she cannot make decisions without the consent of a male counterpart.  So, women are well represented in the sector at large but representation in decision making positions is still lacking,” she explains.

Saraswati recalls a specific incident that illustrates the classical view of what a District Forest Officer (DFO) should be like. She was in the field with one of the very few female DFOs – a highly respected title among the local community:

”We were visiting one of the communities and on our second visit, one of the male members who had not participated on the first day stood in front of the female DFO and me, telling us that he was very thankful that the DFO had visited the community yesterday. He was completely unaware that the lady who was in front of him was in fact the DFO he was talking about! When he found out, he was like, ’I had never expected a lady DFO…’ His image for a chief officer was a tall male with a moustache”.  

Climate change and women

A better gender balance is not only going to benefit the women. According to Saraswati, women in Nepal have a better understanding of the forest:

”Women are the ones who are most vulnerable to climate change, and they are the primary care takers and users of forest resources. Women have the local knowledge about forests, water sources, agriculture, livestock, and soil quality for cultivation of crops. They have the knowledge of forest species selection for plantation, harvesting of fodder, timber, and other forest products. They know the rotation period of species and wood quality for proper utilization. So, having women included at the decision-making level to implement different activities in the field, they will for sure have different competencies in beating climate change and secure sustainable forests,” she explains.

As a female forester working for the government, It is my duty to try to implement gender friendly policy formulation and inclusive gender friendly actions in the field.

To Saraswati gender balance is indispensable for the development of the forest sector. “We have moved out from our household premises and have started working and earning. We have our dreams, our career, and a plan for our future. How can we even imagine developing the sector if there is no understanding our issues?”