Posted on 01 March 2018
Notching wins and making gains, women in the Democratic Republic of the Congo are improving their lives while protecting nature
In the western reaches of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where well-trodden footpaths supplant roads and native dialects still ring through the forest, women shoulder the burdens of daily life. As the sun rises, they ready food for their husbands and children and set out for the fields bordering their villages. There, they turn the soil they’ve nurtured, plant the land they’ve prepared, and harvest the crops they’ve grown to feed and clothe the people who depend on them. They use breaks in the day to fish, make soap, or weave mats. Then, as the sun sinks, they fix another meal.
Here, women are at the center of the household and the heart of local livelihoods, yet they are often excluded from community-level decision-making about the natural resources on which they rely.
“Women have a wealth of knowledge that we need to tap into, because they play a major role as protectors of the natural resources,” says Nathalie Simoneau, senior gender and social inclusion specialist for WWF, who focuses on mainstreaming gender and social issues into WWF programs. “They have to have a greater voice. They have to be involved in making decisions about how the land is used.”
With longstanding and critical funding from USAID and other partners, WWF is working with communities throughout the Congo to empower women by teaching them sustainable farming techniques and fire prevention and management; offering them literacy classes; building their leadership and entrepreneurial skills; and ensuring their representation in decision-making bodies. Women are eager to develop leadership expertise for the betterment of their families and communities—and to create a more secure future for their children.
Working with women and their communities is a critical part of protecting the forests and wildlife in this part of the country. Here, the overharvesting of wood for fuel, conversion of wild spaces to agricultural land, overfishing, and excessive hunting of bushmeat (to eat and to sell) are all on the rise to meet the demands of a growing population. Nearby protected areas such as Tumba Lediima Natural Reserve and Salonga National Park harbor an array of wildlife—including endangered forest elephants and bonobos—and uncontrolled deforestation and poaching could harm their already struggling populations. Better land and natural resource management helps take the pressure off fragile ecosystems, reduce reliance on bushmeat and fish, and conserve nature’s bounty.
Until recently, most local development committees governing community farmland, land use, and natural resources consisted only of men. WWF has been instrumental in instituting a new policy that requires these committees to be at least 30% female. Women receive training in integrated agricultural and conservation practices so they can make meaningful contributions to household livelihoods and related decision-making.
One new practice is agroforestry—a technique that incorporates the cultivation and conservation of trees among crops or pastureland for more productive and sustainable land use. The idea is to keep the soil rich and healthy so the land can continue to produce long term, and to avoid the harmful yet common yearly practice of slashing and burning forests to create more agricultural fields.
In recent years, WWF has also supported Congolese women’s fight for land rights, culminating in the summer of 2016 when the government issued a statement reinforcing the law that stipulates women have to be engaged at all levels of decision-making in community forest concessions. Of course, permanently shifting the balance for women both culturally and legally will take time. But a handful of women in these villages have already adopted new leadership roles and agroforestry techniques with gusto. Through their work—and their success—women and men alike are beginning to see the economic, social, and environmental value in cultivating a community of equals.
Alison Henry, WWF-US
Full story can be read here: https://www.worldwildlife.org/magazine/issues/spring-2018/articles/women-rising