Tackling the devastating effects of climate change and inequality requires a more inclusive approach—one that supports the Indigenous Peoples and local communities who manage and protect the worlds’ lands and resources, and in particular the indigenous and rural women whose unique knowledge plays a pivotal role in communities’ livelihoods and forest protection. Up to 2.5 billion people worldwide—more than half of whom are women—rely on community lands and resources. Rural and indigenous women play an outsize role in managing these lands, simultaneously keeping the world’s forests standing and feeding their families and communities.
Yet limited land and governance rights undermine women’s ability to participate in decision-making affecting their personal agency and economic security, their children’s future, and the future of the planet. A 2017 global study found that governments’ laws are failing to protect indigenous and rural women’s rights to community forests. Protections for women’s decision-making power, such as voting and leadership rights, are particularly inadequate—even as indigenous and rural women continue to take on greater leadership responsibilities due to men’s out-migration from communities and mounting external threats to community lands.
“Those left behind are always women and children that have to play the role of woman, the role of man, and they protect all the communities,” explains Hindou Oumarou Ibrahim, Coordinator of the Indigenous Women and Peoples Association of Chad (AFPAT). “This is so unjust! We need to put the woman at the same level of decision-making and respect and protection, and then we can see the equity and balance in society will come back naturally.”
Across the world, indigenous and rural women are fighting for their land and resources rights—and achieving significant results.
“It is a difficult path. We had to use several strategies,” said Ketty Marcelo, former President of and current adviser to the National Organization of Andean and Amazonian Women in Peru (ONAMIAP for its Spanish acronym). “For example, we worked with our indigenous sisters who were paving the way to raise awareness and address the fundamental role of women within collectively held territories. But we also had to deal with the resistance of some male community members who stated the subject of the management of territories should be discussed with men only.”
Across Peru, the women of ONAMIAP are supporting indigenous communities to reflect on gender roles and revise their community statues to recognize the important contributions of women to their communities. As a result, several communities have changed their local statutes to include women as bona fide community members, and adopted quotas for women’s leadership on community boards. These critical changes strengthen women’s ability to choose their own futures and contribute meaningfully to decisions that may affect their lands and livelihoods for generations to come.
ONAMIAP’s work highlights the importance of working with both community women themselves as well as men and other allies—and in particular community leaders. It also speaks to the need to use diverse strategies to promote rights recognition. The organization’s success was grounded in awareness-raising campaigns; informational workshops designed to demonstrate women’s contributions to their communities; efforts to gain community leaders’ early endorsement; and efforts to build alliances at all levels. These critical lessons can be applied across diverse geographies and political landscapes.
Encouragingly, grassroots groups and a wide range of development organizations are devising successful initiatives to advance the land and governance rights of rural women and their communities, generating stories of progress that underscore women’s agency, power, and potential. More critical reflection on why and how some initiatives succeed can help unpack lessons for future engagements impacting community lands.
A recent analysis examines 22 successful initiatives and distills 10 contributing factors for strengthening indigenous and rural women’s rights to govern community lands. These factors can be adapted by women, communities, and their allies in a range of contexts:
- Engage the entire community.
- Engage community leaders.
- Provide culturally appropriate support.
- Recognize that social change takes time.
- Highlight the valuable contributions that women already make to their communities.
- Demonstrate the community-wide advantages of securing women’s governance rights.
- Use information to empower women as community leaders and decision-makers.
- Establish meeting spaces, activities, networks, or institutions that are exclusively for women.
- Create self-sustaining, multilevel networks of women leaders.
- Build and leverage strategic relationships with a variety of stakeholders outside of communities.