Indigenous and local community women play crucial roles as household and forest managers, food providers, and leaders of rural enterprises—and make invaluable contributions toward global sustainable development and climate goals. The evidence is clear that securing their rights to community lands offers a promising path toward prosperity and sustainability in the forested and rural areas of the world. Yet these rights remain constrained by unjust laws and practices, and the voices of these women are consistently underrepresented in decision-making processes at all levels.
At the most recent Women Deliver conference—the world’s largest gathering on gender equality and the wellbeing of girls and women—experts from across the RRI Coalition had the opportunity to learn from diverse leaders around the world, while also raising awareness of the urgent need to recognize the rights of indigenous, rural, and community women. Here’s what participants said international audiences need to know about the challenges and opportunities facing this unique subset of women.
*The following interviews have been lightly edited for clarity.
Soledad Tehuactle Gonzalez
Youth and indigenous leader, President of the Association of Foresters of the Zongolica Sierra of Mexico and member of the Coordination of Territorial Women Leaders of Mesoamerica
I want to say that I am an indigenous woman, but I don’t just represent myself; I represent the women of Mexico, the women of Mesoamerica, the indigenous woman, the worker (trabajadora). And for us, land is fundamental. Land is identity. It is a fundamental element of our cosmovision. More than a geographic space, it’s a territory.
I'm part of a gender commission(the Coordination of Territorial Women Leaders of Mesoamerica) that was recently formed by the Alliance for Peoples and Forests (AMPB). And the commission is formed with a goal, with the intention that the work of women is made visible. That the work of the woman is recognized by all people out there, those who do not see us, who do not know what we are working on. Along our journey, we have worked together with other organizations that have the same objective and met allies—sister allies, sister organizations—with whom we have things in common. We have learned together, walking hand in hand. And that's what strengthens us as an organization, as women, as a gender commission.
Indigenous women take care of food security. We transmit cultural knowledge and knowledge about traditional medicine. Women raise up the children of tomorrow. We manage our own resources. And we are a powerful network.
Senior Program Officer, The Center for People and Forests (RECOFTC)
When you’re talking about the environment, especially in a very operationalizing sector like the area we work in, we really have to think: what does gender really mean for forestry? The starting point there is not gender. The starting point is not rights. The starting point there is forest conservation. So this is a different battle; it’s a different audience that you’re talking to.
I think change happens in very small steps, so generally we are talking about short-term results. For example, I think it begins with the inclusive process. The heart of it is—are we really setting the inclusion process right? If we do, then immediately you will see that you can actually know who the diverse types of people are who live in forest landscapes. Are there women? Are there youth? Are there marginalized communities? The representation of these communities will increase.Because of that representation, the second short-term result is people will acknowledge that yes, women do matter in forest conservation so at least let’s bring them to the table. Let’s hear from them. And because of that engagement they will also actually know what is it that needs to be done further. I think that this third thing is more about how they will get the confidence to engage with the decision-making spaces, to navigate through the spaces, to say what really matters to them. When they say what they want from forests, how they want to engage into the process of forest governance, things will start to change in terms of understanding the whole notion of what forestry is, for whom and how it should be managed. These multiple perspectives can help to re-frame a very technical sector focused on conservation to rights and culture, to identity and empowerment.
Director, Tanzania Program, Landesa
When rural women have secure land rights, they are more willing to invest in their lands. Insecure land rights create obstacles for rural women engaging in farming and other agricultural activities; in starting home based enterprises; in accessing safe and decent homes. So, I could say land is life, power, hope and destiny for women. Their life is their land. Having secure land means securing their lives. And in some cultures, they say that without land there’s no life. If you take away my land, I won’t live. Land ownership for rural women gives them incentives also to improve family livelihood. In areas like Tanzania, more than 70 percent of women live in rural areas. They feed us. They’re the ones who are tilling the lands. There is much other work they are doing, but rural women are the heart of the country. And with secure land rights, rural women usually have a great say in the household. Subsequently, improving tenure security can have greater impact on income, household, food security, and equity.
Manager, Gender Justice Program, RRI
I think the biggest challenge is that indigenous women work collectively, and they have to go into these spaces and explain their cosmovision of the world—that they see the world collectively and therefore defend their land, their rights, collectively. A lot of the discussion is “my body, my rights.” It's very individualistic. Whereas indigenous women, it's more comprehensive and holistic. That's a challenge and an opportunity because sometimes they have to explain that to the audiences. I went to a panel with Melania Canales Poma, who is the president of the organization ONAMIAP. And she was insistent, saying: we focus on collective rights because, basically you give away your whole identity as a community when you have third parties coming and selling the piece of land. Your identity and your survival are at stake.