Community forestry has been a successful and important policy in forest conservation as well as livelihood development of rural people. However, there is still a pressing demand to minutely and effectively address the gender-based issues in forest management.
The deeply rooted patriarchal mindset has always dominated women and forestry sector is no exception. Women are the primary collectors and users of resources such as forest and water. But the patriarchal division of labor has limited them only to household chores. Most of the women are engaged in food production: planting, harvesting, washing, peeling, preparing, cooking, serving and preserving food. Besides, they have to clean the house, harvest and chop straw for the animals, milk the buffaloes and make the offerings and pray to the gods.
Women power undoubtedly is Nepal’s one of the valuable untapped resources. Realizing this fact and for directly incorporating women in the institutional framework, forestry policy has made it mandatory for at least 50 percent of women representation in Executive Committee (EC) of community forest user group (CFUG). This has contributed a lot to bring women out of the household domain and realize their role as the real managers of the forest.
With changing scenarios of our village where the male partner in every third household is a migrant worker and most of the children are sent to the cities for higher education and jobs, only women and senior citizens reside in the village. Who will be responsible for the management of the forest now?
I had recently got the opportunity to visit Jhauri community forest, one of the most famous CFUGs in Parbat district, which was awarded the third prize by Ministry of Forest and Soil Conservation with Ganeshman Singh Forest Conservation Award for the better management of forest in 2003. I was assisting my Colombian researcher Paola there. We stayed there for two weeks in the house of one of the community leaders and shared most of our time with the local women.
During my stay, I observed that most of the men were away from the village. Young ones have been sent to study either in Kushma, Pokhara or Kathmandu. The youths are either working in Kathmandu or been abroad for work/studies. And the middle-aged men, mostly the retired ones, are involved in the management of the forest and carry out related works. For this, they have to travel to the closest cities most of the time. Only women and the elderly people remain behind.
According to their constitution, the CFUG has to select the EC members every three years. However, in Jhauri no changes have been made and most of the male members of the committee are the same faces since the beginning. This has promoted a strong and centralized leadership in the community. There is an urgent need to switch the leadership to the next generation.
Being a woman, it was easy for me to get information on women’s perspective on community forestry. For men, it will be difficult to get information as rural women are very shy and quiet in front of men. We had long discussions with aunts, sisters, sisters-in-law while working in the field, kitchen, or doing other domestic chores. I talked with them about their role in the committee, decision making, and benefit sharing so that I could get the actual picture of their involvement. As per my expectations, the participation of women is merely limited to representation rather than being meaningful.
Actually, women don’t feel the need to speak when their male counterparts are discussing or making decisions as they think men know everything. It’s all guided by the patriarchal norms, the behavioral values that good women are not supposed to put their views freely in front of their respected in-laws and husbands.
Nevertheless, during my informal chats I realized that even though women were shy to put their views in the mass, they did analyze the decision and talked with other women about it. Another important thing is that women gave their views on the matter or any decisions while chatting with their husbands in the night. I found this indirect influence of women on men interesting. This shows that women are highly interested in the management and decision-making affairs.
Sumitra Regmi is a very bold, beautiful and inspiring woman in the village having an influential role among women. She has been actively involved since the establishment of the forest, its conservation and management. Despite her tireless efforts, the villagers don’t realize their importance or explore their capabilities and strength in forest management.
Two issues stand out in forest management discourse in the village: a) Male outmigration and urge to transfer power to another generation and b) Latent leadership qualities and interest of women in forest management. If these two are placed in the appropriate position, many pressing problems will be solved. Placing women in the vital post can encourage the most enthusiastic women to take the lead. This will address the problem of leader deficiency and fulfill the aim to bring women in the mainstream of sustainable forest management.
Forestry is probably the largest sector where thousands of women have officially been part of user groups and involved in resource management. However, comprehensive homework is needed to ensure active and meaningful participation of women rather than merely representative participation.