Nepal’s forest women on the periphery

The management of forests in Nepal reveals a strong patriarchal system in which those who use the forest the most are the least involved in decision-making processes.
Photo by: Possible/ (CC BY 2.0)/ Source: Flickr

Sabitra wakes up with the sun at 5 am. Her husband, children and in-laws sleep. She heads outside to start her chores for the day, feeding the goats, chickens, and tending to the maize which is beginning to grow tall outside of the small one-bedroom house the family shares.

The months before monsoon season are a busy time of the year for farming. Women work long hours cultivating their fields. However, they have other tasks as well. Sabitra, noticing how far the sun has risen, hurries inside to prepare food for her family and get the children ready for school.

Later in the day, when the sun has gotten too hot for farming, something Sabitra doesn’t remember happening just a few years ago, she and a few of the women begin the long walk to the forest.

These women are part of the 80 percent of Nepal’s rural population relying on the forest to support their livelihoods. Forests provide firewood for their stoves, plants to eat, and grass for their cows, buffalo, and goats, which they collect on a daily basis.

Nepal is ranked as one of the most climate-change vulnerable countries in the world. A situation that is made worse by poverty, land degradation, food insecurity, and deforestation rates at 1.7 percent per year.

Rural people, whose livelihoods depend on natural resources, are the most likely to bear the brunt of adverse impacts. Among rural people, it is women, who utilise the forest the most, therefore feel the impacts of climate change first.

After loading their baskets full and helping each other lift the heavy loads onto their backs, Sabitra and the other women begin the journey back to the village which is nestled high in the mountains of Western Nepal.

In the village, they pass a community forest user group meeting (CFUG) being held at the community centre. Sabitra’s husband is there, along with many other men. The CFUG is a local body meant to govern and protect forest resources. The irony of an all-men committee is obvious considering that the women who have just come from the forest are not involved in the meeting.

In Nepal, the reintroduction of a multi-party system in the 1990s, following the peaceful revolution against the autocratic monarchy, allowed political space for communities to organise around common pool resources, namely, forests.

The state handed over forest governance to local community groups, formally establishing CFUGs. CFUGS are meant to manage, utilise, and protect forest resources. Since their inception, more than 19,000 CFUGs have been established in Nepal, with about 35 percent of the population managing one-fourth of Nepal’s forested areas.

Community forestry is a participatory approach to development, built on the belief that local knowledge and participation will lead to more effective and culturally appropriate outcomes. Indeed, this approach to forest management has had a positive impact on reducing deforestation.

However, it leaves out the voices of those who utilize the forest the most—women. Women have an important contribution to make in natural resource management, their connection to nature is shaped by material practices, providing them with a practical understanding of the environments they utilize.

Recognising the potential benefits of involving women in community forestry, 2008 regulations have required 50 percent of executive leadership positions within CFUGs to be occupied by women. However, while this has increased women in leadership positions, it has not necessarily led to meaningful participation.

A group of women from a rural community expressed some of the barriers that restrict their participation, “we have no education, we don’t know how to act or speak in front of strangers,” one woman said. Another added, “the men don’t listen, they just tell us to get tea and snacks. Sometimes it’s like we’re not there.”

That is if women can get to the meetings in the first place. In many cases, women like Sabitra do not have the time to spare between their extensive household workload and caring for their families. Meetings are often held at inconvenient times and may be spread out over a large area, meaning they also have to consider the travel time.

Sabitra’s case is not exclusive, rather, it represents the experiences of the majority of women living in rural Nepal. In a country based on a caste system, problems are exacerbated for Dalit and Janajati women, who are considered lower caste.

These barriers can be attributed to the subordinate position women occupy in relation to men in Nepalese society which plays a large role in restricting women’s mobility and their participation.

Nepal’s patriarchal structure situates women as the traditional unpaid, household labourers with women completing 74.8 percent of unpaid, home-based labour. As women’s roles as caretakers are often taken for granted, Nepalese women have much higher workloads than the international average as well as higher workloads than their male counterparts.

Culturally, girls are expected to help their mothers with household tasks while men and boys do not engage in domestic work. When we asked one woman, who had two young sons, what would help lessen her work burden, she laughed and said, “if I had a daughter.” Another expressed a similar sentiment, saying her workload would be eased when her son was married and her daughter in-law could help her.

These family structures are reflected in educational attainment, with boys more likely to attend school because they are viewed as future family breadwinners. In 2015, over 40 percent of females in the 15-49 age group had never been to school compared to 14 percent of males.

Associated with low educational attainment is a lack of confidence among women. Many of the women I spoke with did not feel like they had the knowledge to participate or speak up, despite their high involvement in forest activities that gives them practical experience.

Due to their subordinate position that restricts them to household chores, the majority of women we spoke with also did not feel like they had the social knowledge regarding how to behave towards strangers or in community meetings, another large factor with the lack of confidence.

Further, as made clear by  Indu Pant, CARE Nepal’s Gender and Social Inclusion Coordinator, “There are stark power relations between men and women; women are socialized under societal expectations to be a good wife, daughter, and daughter in law, meaning obedience, loyalty, and completing chores without complaint.”. This, therefore, makes it more difficult for women to break out of the roles assigned to them and participate in forest governance, as well as any other community activity.

While the 2008 regulations were a step in the right direction, our conversations with rural women as well as other’s case studies have exemplified why mainstreaming strategies are sometimes only effective at face value. There is a need to ensure that policies are implemented effectively in order for women to participate meaningfully in natural resource management.

Claire McMahon

Claire is a researcher at a non-profit in San Francisco which is dedicated to engaging the public in a broad range of international affairs issues. Previously, she worked in Nepal where she conducted a study on women's workloads and the gendered division of labor in the context of community forestry. She received her MSc in International Development from the University of Edinburgh in 2017 and has bachelor’s degrees in international policy and anthropology. Claire is particularly interested in advocating for gender equity and human rights, whether that's in her own backyard or within a global context.
5 Comments on this post.
  • Avatar
    Dan C. Earle
    16 June 2017 at 4:57 am
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    Claire McMahon, thank you the work you are doing and for providing a clear and concise description of one aspect of Nepal’s female population. Your writing flows and informs. Thank you again.

    • Avatar
      Claire McMahon
      16 June 2017 at 5:43 am
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      Thank you very much, Dan!

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    Margaret Wiggin
    16 June 2017 at 6:31 pm
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    I enjoyed reading your article and want to compliment you on how well you have presented what it is like to be a woman in Nepal.

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    Ada Harrington
    16 June 2017 at 7:21 pm
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    Great article about a world most of us will never know. Thank you to people like Claire, who go where others never will and share their experience with us.

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    ChRistine winslow
    12 November 2017 at 6:08 am
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    Thank you Claire for educating us on women’s issue outside our world. Very well written

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