By Malgorzata Buszko-Briggs, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN

Across the planet, about one billion women rely on forests for their livelihoods, helping to feed their families and contribute to household income – and building specialized knowledge of the best ways to manage and use forests sustainably.

As we celebrate 2022 International Women’s Day, and look towards an in-depth review of Sustainable Development Goal 5 (Gender equality) by the UN High-level Political Forum on Sustainable Development in July, it is time to take concrete action to empower women in forest communities and tap their knowledge to help solve our climate crisis.

From gathering forest products for fuel, medicines, fodder for livestock, and wild food for their own use or to sell, women in rural forest communities are active forest users. It has been estimated that, globally, 80 percent of unpaid fuelwood collection is done by women and girls. 

Yet the role of these women role often remains invisible and unrecognised. Women continue to work in the informal economy and are often paid less than men. Their access to technology, credit and training is limited or sometimes denied. Too often they have little say in decision-making that concerns their own forests and their contribution is not appropriately documented.

At the same time, women who rely on forests to look after their families often have special knowledge of these precious natural resources, and how to manage and use them sustainably.

This is knowledge that could and should be tapped as we look to forests as a key part of the solution to our climate crisis. Women should be actively involved in planning and implementing sustainable forest management, restoration activities, and in initiatives related to reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation.

Women tend to see forests as a precious natural resource that can provide a wide range of services when managed sustainably, rather than purely as an economic asset.  A study in Sweden has found that female forest owners place a greater emphasis on the health, recreational and environmental value of forests.

This year’s International Women’s Day takes the theme #BreakTheBias, and there can be no more timely call to action for bringing out of the shadows the role women play in rural and forest communities.

This could offer massive dividends in helping to achieve many of the SDGs, including those on poverty (Goal 1), hunger (Goal 2), gender equality (Goal 5), climate change (Goal 13) and life on land (Goal 15).

So what can we do to empower women in forest communities? In general, more attention needs to be paid to implementing gender responsive laws and policies, boosting the security of women’s land tenure rights, and setting targets for gender balance in decision-making bodies.

Women also need greater support to run forestry enterprises, from legal timber trading to sustainable tourism, and to engage in conservation and forest monitoring efforts. This includes providing gender-differentiated training programmes designed to work with the hours women have available to study.

We know that change is possible. In Colombia, the government and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) have been working to increase dialogue between women and men, helping to make women’s voices and priorities heard. Women’s participation in community forestry in the country increased from 15% in 2018 to 40% in 2020.

Finally, we need to address the image of the forestry sector itself. Modern forestry can and should be an attractive career for young women – and young people in general – with its increasing emphasis on biodiversity conservation, landscape and ecosystem management, and restoration.

To encourage more young women to pursue careers in the forestry sector, we need to better communicate and clearly demonstrate the wide range of career pathways available, reaching young people through targeted communication campaigns and a new approach to forest education. We also need to work towards greater visibility of female foresters so that they can serve as inspirational role models.

At a time when humanity is facing multiple challenges, forests are more than ever essential, offering solutions for climate change, biodiversity, sustainable agriculture and food security. And women need an equal say on how they are protected, used and managed.

By Malgorzata Buszko-Briggs, Senior Forestry Officer, Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN