|Women in five tropical forest countries share their views on how timber trade deals between their countries and the EU could boost gender equity.|
|Norma Rodríguez, the first female President of the Honduran Federation of Agro-forestry Cooperatives, hopes a timber trade deal her country has recently agreed with the EU will create a brighter future for women, but she knows it won’t be easy.
“It’s hard to change things because of the patriarchal culture that dictates that the man works in the field and the woman is weak,” she says, adding that through the new deal, “we hope for more opportunities to create jobs and for more women to work and improve our situation.”
Her views are echoed by To Kim Lien, Director of the Center for Education and Development, in Vietnam, which is also implementing a new timber trade deal with the EU. “If you go to a sawmill or into the forest, you mostly see men,” she says. “The participation of women is quite limited. In companies you also see mainly men, with women limited to roles like accountants.”
The deals that Honduras and Vietnam have agreed with the EU are called Voluntary Partnership Agreements (VPAs), and they aim to address illegal logging and boost legal trade while improving forest governance. One way they do this is by creating space for people to have their say in decisions that affect them. This is crucial for women in tropical forest countries whose livelihoods are closely linked to forests but who have often been left out or ignored.
While some NGOs have criticised VPAs for not doing more for women sooner, a slew of activities are now underway in VPA countries across the tropics. A growing number of projects are assessing inequalities, identifying women’s needs and providing training to help ensure that women can participate in decision-making processes. And there are now some positive signs that VPAs have empowered women.
| In Liberia, for example, as many as 300 women are involved in the VPA process from the national to the community level, says Julie Weah, director of the Foundation for Community Initiatives. “They are beginning to be appointed to leadership positions on forest governance structures such as the Community Forestry Development Committees.”
These committees decide how to spend funds from a scheme Liberia set up to share the benefits of commercial forestry with local communities. And while women still only account for 22% of all members, their representation increased by 50% between 2009 and 2018, and there is now at least one woman on every committee. “Initially women had no voice in forest governance,” says Weah. “So, at this point we can say, yes, they have some voice, though not to the level which we wanted.”
“Forest decision-making processes are still crowded by men,” says Nora Bowier, Coordinator of Sustainable Development Institute, a Liberian civil society organization. “It is important for women to be involved in the VPA and in any process of law making that affects them. If they are kept out of the process their concerns will not be addressed.”
“Women need to be empowered and feel confident and be given the opportunity to get as involved as their male counterparts,” she says. “If we only have men engaging in the process, that will reinforce the gender disparity and patriarchy system we are fighting to change.”
Women’s representation has been less of a challenge in some other VPA countries, such as Indonesia and Guyana. Oki Hadiyati, one of three women occupying all three leadership roles in the Licensing Information Unit in Indonesia’s Ministry of Environment and Forestry, notes that women play roles throughout the forestry sector — as regulators, business owners or in nongovernmental organisations. “Of course, women have voice to take decisions or give input for decision-making in each position,” she says.
Similarly, in Guyana, women make up 40% of the staff of the Forestry Commission and 45% of those employed in community forestry, according to Jocelyn Dow, Chairwoman of the Board of the Guyana Forestry Commission.
While women there credit the VPA process with helping to improve gender equity, they expect more gains are still to come. “The VPA opens a major door for greater involvement in decision making at a community level for women,” says Pradeepa Bholanath, Head of the Planning and Development Division at the Guyana Forestry Commission. “It is an exciting opportunity for women to be creative and fill in that gap.”
But increasing women’s participation in the forest sector is about more than equity. It also brings wider benefits, says Gertrude Nyaley — technical manager of the community forestry department at Liberia’s Forestry Development Authority. She says that in rural areas women have a better appreciation of the value of forests than men, as they depend on forests as sources of medicine and food. “So, when they are involved in making decisions, they are very clear and very keen that whatever change they will make will benefit the household, the children, the community at large,” she says. “Women are not selfish people.”
To Kim Lien of the Center for Education and Development, in Vietnam, agrees. “When I talk to people about the future of the country and about sustainability, women are way more interested,” she says. “Women look at things more holistically, so they consider the family and the community, not only business.
She says she sees young women in charge of small businesses who are learning about the VPA and trying to prepare to use it as way to reach international markets and develop their businesses. “A new generation of women is coming,” she says.