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A Gender-Responsive Approach to Natural Resources

Global Food for Thought by Alemneh Dejene and Jacqueline Ogega
Woman in a forest in Sierra Leone

Sustainable biodiversity and ecosystems outcomes require transformative shifts in gender norms.

Promoting gender equality and women’s empowerment in environmental natural resource management (NRM) creates sustainable benefits for households and communities while advancing human and environmental health and wellbeing outcomes. However, many of the previous approaches to environment and NRM have not strongly considered gender. World Vision has begun to adopt a more responsive approach to address barriers to access, decision-making, and meaningful participation that exist due to gender-based social norms.

Access and Ownership

Gender roles and norms influence access and the use of natural resources. Evidence attributes numerous environmental restoration benefits to women’s access and management of land; yet structural inequalities often limit women’s ownership to land and access to natural resources. Globally only about 13.8 percent women are land holders, and in sub-Saharan only 14.2 percent of women own some land. Women’s land holdings are often smaller and of lower quality than men’s, although more women than men are working in agriculture and natural resources management, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet, women’s access and/or title to land have resulted in environmentally sustainable and climate-resilient natural resource management practices such as tree planting, soil fertility improvement, and water harvesting contributing food security, livelihood, and income. It is important to create opportunities for equal access and ownership to land and support women’s ability to make appropriate investments to support local food systems, ensure nutrition and food security, and diversify into other sustainable livelihood options. This requires urgent gender-responsive programmatic and policy action and support by all development partners.

The UN Millennium project suggests four areas that could help increase women’s access to land:

  • Reforming laws and supporting women claim to property and joint titling in both partner’s names.
  • Collective approaches to support women’s access to land.
  • International action in support of national movements for women’s property and inheritance rights.

World Vision implements programs that address factors globally recognized to address women’s unequal access to and ownership of land and key natural resources. For example, through the Citizen Voice and Action capacity-building approach, World Vision’s farmer-managed natural regeneration program engaged women in Niger to advocate the government to secure tenure to land, which is leased to them as a group with user and management rights for production of natural resources. The women have also engaged with communities to challenge gender and social norms around women’s value chains, enterprise, land rights, and secure tenure.

Inclusive Participation and Decision-making

Although women continue to lead efforts in natural resources management and biodiversity, they lack meaningful participation, leadership and representation in decision making at all levels. Women’s needs, priorities, and knowledge have not been adequately considered. This limits their roles and knowledge to contribute effectively to natural resource and ecosystem management. Through its gender-responsive approach to programming, World Vision takes a critical lens to design principles that might unintentionally undermine women’s participation and agency. Women’s inclusion in decision-making at the local and community level plays a critical role in facilitating fair sharing of benefits and promoting sustainability. In Ethiopia, World Vision’s Huambo project partnered with the local government and cooperatives to build consensus on women’s participation early in the project formulation phase and facilitated the development of bylaws ensuring benefit sharing to all those who had contributed labor.

The Huambo project made an explicit effort to include female-headed household and women who depend on the exploitation of degraded community forest and woodland areas during the initial year of area closure for regeneration, which has enhanced women’s participation in the forest management groups and cooperative’s platform. With increased access to forest products such as wood, trees, grasses, and water from the revitalized ecosystem, women began to actively engage in extracting, selling, and bringing new household income. Women’s decision-making around the use of income also improved household food security.

It is essential that international development program designers ensure that innovations, technologies, and practices are designed to reduce women’s time poverty, which has been a serious constraint for women’s meaningful participation, and decision-making. For example, innovations that would reduce rural women’s heavy burden in water, fuelwood collection, weeding, and harvesting would free their time and provide opportunities for them to diversify their livelihoods and improve their well-being.

Building Gender Transformation Evidence

There is a great opportunity to effectively capture and communicate the impact of work to advance equal access, ownership, decision-making, and participation for women and men in natural resource management. The process of capturing gender-related impact is challenging, requiring specific tools and skills to understand complex long-term processes of transformational development. It calls for moving beyond sex disaggregation to incorporate both quantitative and qualitative data, to assess policy, norms, relations, attitudes, perceptions, and other factors that account for gender-differentiated needs and priorities. This approach is also fully in line with the Sustainable Development Goals (including SDG 5), which requires sex-disaggregated data as well as gendered quantitative data to track progress in the targets. This is a political process that requires intentionality and resourcing.


Sustainable biodiversity and ecosystems outcomes require transformative shifts in gender norms. World Vision’s programming takes a Gender Equality and Social Inclusion approach, seeking to empower women while addressing gender inequality and social exclusion. This can be the foundation to create sustainable solutions to natural resource management. Key interventions can be taken by different development partners, donors, policymakers, practitioners, and other actors. Policymakers and practitioners can focus greater attention on policy development or reform on women’s access to and ownership of land and other key NRM resources. Stronger private sector and research partnerships should be forged to foster gender-responsive innovation in agricultural technology. It is necessary to increase funding and programmatic emphasis on women’s participation and decision-making. All efforts should also ensure more robust generation and utilization of evidence on promising practices in integrating gender equality and social inclusion in natural resource management.

About the Authors
Alemneh Dejene
Ph.D., Cornell University
Jacqueline Ogega
Director of Gender Equality and Social Inclusion, World Vision United States