Investing in gender equality and women’s empowerment can unlock human potential on a transformational scale. USAID’s Regional Coastal Biodiversity Project (RCBP), a coordinated effort with the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and local partners, is integrating gender equality and women’s empowerment as essential strategies to the biodiversity conservation of coastal marine ecosystems in El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras. The project’s gender approach includes addressing restrictive gender norms for women and men, strengthening women’s livelihoods, and increasing leadership and decision-making opportunities for women in the management of community natural resources.
Luis Ramos, Ph.D., an environmental project management specialist for USAID, manages the RCBP program in Central America and successfully integrated gender equality and women’s issues into the project.
The following conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Why was it important to integrate gender equality and women's empowerment into the RCBP project?
Luis: It has been well documented that women participate in the management and care of natural resources, but it's frequently not recognized, and there are some gaps in the relationship between men and women in decision-making or the division of labor; that certain activities should be done by only men or only women.
Women tend to be the people who add value to products coming from nature. In the case of fish, a fisher is typically a man. Whenever the fish comes, the man hands the fish to the women and then the women are the ones who convert that into a sellable product, adding value.
What is the importance of women participating in conservation activities?
Luis: I think women’s participation makes actions more sustainable and durable through time. I see as many women as men participating with the same eagerness to protect their environment. They recognize the value of their ecosystem to their livelihoods. And, increasingly, women are participating in the decision-making process on how to approach conservation and restoration.
What is the project’s gender strategy?
Luis: [The strategy] is to set up internal policies that identify which women need particular support, and address the norms around masculinity and socially constructed concepts within the communities. These masculinity conversations challenge the idea of typical masculinity. Men get into these conversations, which opens their minds to see women differently, and they recognize the value of women’s participation.
What are the traditional gender dynamics around natural resource management in the region?
Luis: In general, women are not recognized, as in many areas of development, as truly participating in different efforts. [In] fishing, for example,there are very few women. And the male fishers do not tend to see women’s participation in the process as a critical part of the fishing scheme. [The women] are the ones who clean the fish. The women are the ones who sell it, but they are not the fishers. They are not the ones who participate in the decision process. We need to raise awareness of the important roles that women play in the fishing sector, and that without [women],the whole fishing scheme would be unsuccessful.
How have those dynamics changed with the project’s gender-focused activities?
Luis: Slowly, we believe that more men are recognizing the importance of women participating. And that is expressed in more women taking a very active role in leading decision-making groups; [for example,] being the president of the board of fishing cooperatives. A few years ago, you wouldn't see women attending, being involved, or leading the groups. Now I see more frequently the president of the board being a woman or the treasury management being a woman and many groups say, ‘We have better accounting now, because they do a better job.’ More transparency, more accountability, and just better investment schemes. [Women] are better managers.
What challenges have you seen in trying to integrate this gender strategy?
Luis: There is always a need to provide gender awareness among the implementing group. You have to be careful of the social construct within the community that you might be breaking. When you empower women, you disrupt the social norm in areas where that has not been the case. [Empowering women and disrupting social norms is] something you have to take into consideration to make sure you are not increasing the possibilities of gender-based violence.
What advice would you give to other climate environment experts who want to focus on a gender-responsive approach?
Luis: I think men need to be included more in discussions concerning [masculinity and] gender issues. As we empower women and provide them with opportunities, I think men need to examine traditional masculine roles in their communities and how they can restrict both men and women. Women have a perspective to add to development that men may not have previously considered due to traditional gender roles. And I think it's very valuable. And it can make any development process move forward.
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Tedi S. Rabold is a science journalist specializing in writing and documentary video production about environmental conservation and public health. She currently provides communications support for various USAID environmental projects. She also works as a paralegal and is currently preparing to sit for the U.S. Patent Office Bar Exam. Tedi holds a Master of Science in Science Journalism from Boston University and a Bachelor of Science in Biology from The George Washington University, with specialized studies in marine biology at James Cook University in Australia.