Why women have an essential role in biodiversity conservation

By Razan Al Mubarak, Managing Director, Environment Agency Abu Dhabi (EAD) | April 28, 2021

During the Golden Age of Islamic civilization in the 8th century, Baghdad in Iraq, was home to the House of Wisdom, an academy of knowledge that brought together the era’s preeminent scientists, scholars, and philosophers. Men of diverse faiths and ethnicities worked with one another to tackle the great mysteries of the time, collectively making giant leaps forward in medicine, astronomy, chemistry, mathematics, philosophy, and other fields.

On April 22, as we recognized International Mother Earth Day, we should look to this inclusive, collaborative approach to problem-solving as a model for addressing one of the great existential crises of our time – biodiversity loss. But the modern version should ensure that women, who tend to be primary caregivers, land managers, and resource users, have an equal voice in decision making when it comes to the sustainable use of land, water, and other natural resources.

It is estimated that we are losing more than 10,000 species to extinction per year, a rate that is 1,000 times faster than at any other time in human history. These trends have serious implications for the well-being of not just those who depend on their environment for basic needs, but for all humanity. Look no further than the COVID-19 pandemic. Its origin and the ensuing socio-economic crisis are ultimately ecological. As we encroach upon and destroy wild spaces and the species that inhabit them, we are essentially destroying our first line of defence that healthy ecosystems provide.

Women in many parts of the world, especially women in Indigenous communities, are among the first to experience the devastating impact of this extinction pandemic. In fact, they are often nature’s first responders, security detail, and scientists searching for a cure to the crisis engulfing their communities. Biodiversity loss forces women and girls to spend more time and travel greater distances to collect water, wood for fuel, and animals and plants for food and medicine. This in turn sets them further back in receiving an education and generating a livable income and makes it harder for them to have a say in the conservation and management of their communities’ natural resources.

Women are not just lacking an equal seat at the table at a grassroots level. Like many fields dominated by men such as science, engineering, and government, women are also underrepresented in the conservation world. Men comprise 70% of the members of the International Union for Conservation of Nature Species Survival Commission, a global network of 10,000 experts who advise the organization on the conservation of individual species, and less than 30% of the world’s researchers are women. According to the World Economic Forum’s latest Global Gender Gap Index, gender equality is still almost a century away at the current pace of change.

In light of the biodiversity crisis we face, it is clear that we must take every step to urgently accelerate this pace now.

As we implement the UN Convention on Biological Diversity over the next decade, we must prioritize enhancing the participation and engagement of women and girls. This means striving to expand their ranks on all fronts, particularly in regions and cultures where they may still face inequality. The United Arab Emirates, where I am from, has successfully prioritized gender equality in multiple areas. More than half of the country’s university degrees in science, technology, engineering, and math now go to women; four of our primary environmental agencies and organizations are led by women; women comprise half of the Federal National Council, the country’s advisory legislature, and one-third of the Cabinet; and according to the World Economic Forum, the UAE ranks second throughout the world in wage equity.

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At the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, where I serve as founding Managing Director, we recently analyzed the gender ratio among our grant applicants and discovered that in Africa and Asia, regions of exceptional biodiversity where conservation efforts are most needed, men submit three times more grant applications than women. It would benefit all grantmaking organizations to conduct a similar analysis to ensure they are fostering a more equal representation of gender among their applicants. Our own response has been to make a concerted effort to solicit more applications from women in these regions.

While the fact that women comprise half the world’s population should be enough to secure equal inclusion in conservation efforts, they are often particularly well-positioned to rally local support for animals whose survival hinges on the people who share their habitats. One shining example is MBZ Fund grantee Purnima Devi Barman, a wildlife biologist working to protect India’s greater adjutant stork, or Hargila. She founded the Hargila Army, a local all-female volunteer group that protects nesting sites, saves fallen baby birds, and educates the local community on the importance of these rare and endangered scavengers. According to Dr. Barman, this community conservation model could easily be replicated in other parts of the world. “Women are very influential,” Barman told Audubon in 2020. “If we build the support of the women, then we can raise the support of the men.”

According to the Dutch social psychologist Geert Hofstede, in societies where gender roles overlap rather than are divided, both men and women tend to be more modest, tender, and concerned with the quality of life; he pointed to Sweden, Norway, the Netherlands, and Costa Rica as modern examples of feminine cultures to emulate. These attributes are a hallmark of the very reasons the UN established International Mother Earth Day as a time to recognize collective responsibility, as laid out in the 1992 Rio Declaration. It is a day to promote harmony with nature and the Earth, and to recognize the indivisibility of economic, social, and environmental needs.

Empowering every man and woman to play a role in preserving our planet is our best hope. When I am overwhelmed by the enormity of the challenge we face, I like to think of it this way: there are 7.8 billion people on this planet, and we have 10 billion species. If just one individual out of 10 is empowered to protect a potentially endangered species, we have addressed the problem. We need to recreate this collective responsibility, a House of Wisdom for the modern era that brings together people from all walks of life: mothers, farmers, caregivers, scholars, scientists, indigenous community members, and young people – to protect our planet for present and future generations of humanity.

This article was first published by the World Economic Forum

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