Moving around this very cold village in Ruhija tourism sector in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, several things captivated my attention; female rangers clad in heavy army green uniforms and heavy boots rushing to report to duty, women carrying their babies on the back going to their gardens adjacent to the park boundary, women and children making their way back home in the evenings carrying firewood, sometimes picked from the park or along the park boundary. And some other women actively participating in the maintenance of thorny hedge fences along the park boundary and construction of water projects in the community. It got me thinking about how engrossed they are in their work and what contribution their efforts make at the end of the day in a male-dominated world, and alternative scenarios which would bring not only more equity, but even greater conservation achievements benefiting nature, wildlife and people.
Despite good intentions, a large extent of conservation efforts are often focused on men. Although most conservation losses affect the women because they are dependent on natural resources for most of their livelihoods, there are few women involved in conservation, and limited affirmative action to ensure the involvement of more women constructively involved as professionals or as stakeholders in conservation. Margaret Kinnaird, IGCP board member, also Global Wildlife Practice Leader at WWF International, says “When I began my involvement in conservation in the 1970s, it was a very male dominated career. Even in the 1980s when I was in graduate school, there was only one female in the department of wildlife ecology to sit on my dissertation committee! Although this is gradually changing to involve more women, we are still underrepresented and often underpaid relative to our male counterparts”.
Everyday men and women interact with the environment in different ways based on their gender roles. It is important that we involve both genders equally to ensure balanced and sensible solutions to conservation challenges. According to Robert Bitariho, Director, Institute for Tropical Forest Conservation, conservationists need to do a better job involving women in conservation because they use natural resources, too. Robert argues that since more men are in managerial positions, most conservation solutions fail to be gender sensitive – they lack a balanced solution, therefore involving more women will guarantee maximum conservation outputs.
In the park adjacent communities, women have frequented the park for resources such as firewood, hand crafts materials, medicinal herbs and water, some of them have often endured farm losses from crop raiding by wildlife. Educating them about the sustainable use of natural resources and conservation friendly farming approaches will not only add value to conservation work but will also guarantee conservation of nature and wildlife and also mitigate biodiversity challenges.
Every day, women continue to take on jobs both small and big, formal and informal, at local and international levels to help the planet; this coupled with their nature to be great stewards provides an advantage of realizing the best from women if involved in conservation. Asked on what advice she would give to women aspiring to be leaders in conservation, Julia Marton Lefevre, former director of the IUCN once said “just do it! just get on with it and do a good job. And by showing that you are doing a good job, there will be more women who will have the courage to join and will be invited to join”.
“I have heard women in Bwindi advising each other to educate their girls when they see me leading community workshops about disease transmission risks between people and gorillas” shares Gladys Kalema-Zikusoka, Founder of Conservation Through Public Health (CTPH). This is the kind of inspiration needed, to tailor conservation efforts to trigger rising of more female conservation role models for generations to come. Gladys adds that because women have a more holistic view and collaborative approach to work, it brings an added and much needed benefit to wildlife conservation in Africa; women are, in general, less competitive than men and focus more on the bigger picture.
Sharing with one of the lady rangers in Bwindi Impenetrable National Park, Ahasiimire Jane, reveals that she was inspired to join the profession because there are few ladies in the field, and the few she knew then from her neighborhood seemed to be happy and financially independent. So, she wanted to change the trend because she believes what a man can do, a woman can do, too, or even do it better. Jane acknowledges that there are challenges in her type of work but that’s not an excuse for making her contribution remarkable.
While Elizabeth Nyirakaragire a Veterinary Officer in Volcanoes National Park also says, if actively involved women can significantly contribute to conservation, especially on issues of sustainable use of natural resources that they use on a daily. If educated on better trash management options for example, it would guarantee cleanliness and protection of the park. “Let us not downplay the role of women in conservation but rather focus on empowering them with the right information and the world will be amazed at how much positive change they can cause in conserving our environment.”
Especially when you look at great apes, it is no secret what women can do for conservation, history provides examples of great women like Dian Fossey who spent most of her time studying and conserving mountain gorillas in the Virungas and Jane Goodall famous for her work among Chimpanzees of Gombe and for her efforts to raise awareness about the plight of both wild and captive chimpanzees. And many more women, without the fame and recognition, who have likewise devoted their careers and lives to conserving wildlife and the natural world. All that is needed is creating more affirmative platforms for their involvement.
Commenting on what needs to be done to ensure more female participation/involvement in conservation, Margaret says that women should first of all learn to believe in themselves. “Trust and voice your opinions but base them on strong, objective research and personal experience. Be passionate but not emotional. Our planet is at a tipping point; we need strong female voices (and our male counterparts too!) to convince our governments, corporations, and civil society to take nature and the fate of our planet seriously and help reverse and restore it”.