Focus on Gender: Give women a say in dryland protection

Women are often unaware of their rights to resources and are excluded from decision-making Copyright: Flickr/icrisat.images

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  • Many poor women rely on fragile dryland areas for income
  • But women are often excluded from land and livestock decisions
  • Projects to encourage women to secure land rights are key to conserving drylands

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Projects to conserve dryland areas must ensure that women have secure access to and control over this land, says Henrietta Miers.

Results of a study presented this month revealed that the economic value of dryland ecosystems is higher in developing than developed countries, putting pressure on policymakers to prioritise dryland conservation in low-income nations. Successful policies will combine technical conservation with a people-centred focus — and central to this will be recognising that many poor women rely on drylands for income.

Policymakers can learn from initiatives such as one in dry parts of Mozambique, where women are encouraged to secure land rights. Women's traditional knowledge on resource management in dryland areas, for example finding alternative coping strategies when is drought or erratic rainfall, holds the key to the natural resource use and management necessary to feed their families and survive drought.

Dryland degradation impacts women in various ways. As soil fertility declines, crop and livestock productivity decreases, hitting incomes and food security. Lower and less-predictable yields mean ever-more-radical survival strategies, such as men leaving in search of incomes.

This increases women's workloads and decreases their already-limited access to resources such as land, water and livestock. Yet because it is men who traditionally supervise decisions over land and livestock, women are often excluded from land conservation and development projects, agricultural extension activities and policymaking.

In Mozambique, 80 per cent of the land is semi-arid. The multi-donor Community Land Initiative (ITC) aims to formalise land and natural resource rights for poor communities. This enables them to increase sustainable economic development through, for example, ecotourism and the formation of associations for the large-scale production of food, cash crops, wood products and biofuels.

One ITC study found that women have limited access to and control over land and natural resources. But they are often unaware of their rights to these resources and are excluded from household and community decision-making around them. [1]

In response, ITC has focused on educating women on land laws and the importance of obtaining land tenure, informing them of the value of their natural resources and encouraging them to participate in community natural resource committees. [2] As a result, women's participation in ITC's activities has increased from around ten per cent to up to 45 per cent in some project areas.

US aid agency the Millennium Challenge Corporation runs a similar project in Namibia — the Communal Land Support Activity — which helps dryland communities map and register their lands. The project trains community members about land use and ownership. To date, 30 per cent of those trained have been women. [3]

Future dryland conservation initiatives must ensure that people have secure access to and control over their land. Such formalisation of land tenure is often a primary concern for poor women.

Henrietta Miers has worked across Africa and Asia as a gender and social development consultant for 15 years, specialising in gender policy. She is senior associate of WISE Development, a consulting company that focuses on boosting the economic opportunities for poor women.


[1] Leavett, R. et al Building gender and community engagement capacity in land and natural resource management in Mozambique (Natural Resources Institute, 23 November 2012)

[2] Millennium Challenge Account Mozambique MCA Mozambique Newsletter (MCA, October 2012)

[3] Millennium Challenge Account Namibia MCA Namibia Bulletin (MCA, May 2012)