The internet is teeming with inspiring and compelling stories of women conservation leaders, and real-life examples of the myriad benefits of gender-integrated conservation initiatives and various manuals and guidelines on how to do so. The last decade saw a sea change in how gender is understood and integrated into conservation and environmental programming—with growing donor requirements, dedicated technical staff and programmes in conservation organizations, and increasing efforts at the community level.

In the Peruvian Amazon, Conservation International is working with the Shampuyacu Indigenous community to support women in preserving their forests and in passing on their traditional knowledge. One of the small grants helped support a gender analysis and strategy for Conservation International’s work in the region. Photo: Marlon del Aguila

But faced with gender norms, tight budgets, insufficient cross-sectoral training, and many competing demands, conservation practice still has a long way to go before we reach our aspirational commitments of just and equal conservation.

In an effort to overcome some of these barriers, Conservation International has invested in nearly 20 project sites since 2014 to support targeted gender integration into existing conservation projects.  Through small grants and technical support, these initiatives were meant to test Conservation International’s Guidelines for Integrating Gender & Social Equity Into Conservation Programming, familiarize staff with gender concepts and strategies to help them overcome the common assumption that only gender specialists can carry out these tasks, and create good examples of gender-responsive conservation projects.

Women selling traditional crafts in the Konashen Indigenous District of Southern Guyana. One of the small grants facilitated separate women’s focus groups to influence the design of the regional development plan. Photo: Piotr Naskrecki

The concept of gender seems to fill many conservationists with conflicting emotions: although people recognize that it is a critical social aspect that greatly influences natural resource use, decision-making and access to and control of resources, it can also cause a sense of anxiety. I’ve been told many times by colleagues that they ‘are not gender specialists’ and therefore can’t possibly know how to integrate gender into a conservation project.

But those colleagues who are on the frontlines—working with communities to protect, restore and conserve their natural resources—are often best placed to be advocates and supporters of gender-equitable conservation. They know more than they think about how women and men use, manage and govern their resources. Providing them with funding and technical support to bring that knowledge to the forefront, analyse it, and use it to adapt project implementation, has been an effective way to build capacity and better projects.

Women fish processors on the Tonle Sap lake of Cambodia are also members of savings groups. One of the small grants enabled expansion of the savings groups and a more influential voice in community fishery management. Photo: Sophak Sett

Several years after we began these small grants, we wanted to know how they worked and what their lasting impacts are. We interviewed project managers to document what they considered the greatest benefits to gender integration and the primary costs or challenges. The numerous benefits identified included:

  • Increased participation and empowerment of women in conservation activities and decision-making
  • Contribution to potential conservation outcomes
  • Increased staff awareness and changes to operations
  • Gender normative change within project communities
  • Strengthened partnerships for national implementation of environmental priorities
  • Increased ability to access and steward funding with gender requirements

The costs or challenges included:

  • Insufficient funding for staff time and activities
  • Inadequate knowledge and skills of key project personnel
  • Lack of specific materials and technical support
  • Societal norms

Nolsita Siyang, a forest ranger who regularly patrols the protected area surrounding her village on the island of Palawan, Philippines. One of the small grants examined the design and management of the Mt Mantalingahan Protected Landscape and found that most community engagement focused only on male Indigenous chiefs. Read more here. Photo: Tim Noviello

These costs and challenges highlight the real financial, technical, and cultural barriers that conservation practitioners face when working to integrate gender into their programmes. Overall, there was consensus that this creative, small grants approach was an effective, country-driven method to build capacity, knowledge, and skills on gender.

If conservation is ever going to have equitable, effective and sustainable outcomes, we need to prepare and support practitioners to acknowledge, understand and respond in culturally appropriate ways to gender inequality.

As the conservation field continues to evolve, I am optimistic that we are entering a new chapter where gender-responsive projects become status quo, where conservation graduates are equipped with the appropriate skills, and where practitioners feel empowered to make a difference despite not being specialists in gender-related matters.

Community women on their way to harvest shellfish in the fishing area of Anagusa Island, Papua New Guinea. With one of the small grants, staff partnered with a local female leader to gather information about how women use and make decisions about natural resources in this area. Photo: Stephani Gordon

The article Unpacking the perceived benefits and costs of integrating gender into conservation projects: voices of conservation field practitioners is available in Oryx—The International Journal of Conservation.

Kame Westerman is the Senior Gender Advisor at Conservation International, working across projects and programmes to promote practical and culturally appropriate ways to integrate gender considerations into field initiatives. Kame pioneered the organization’s gender programme, a cornerstone of Conservation International’s rights-based approach, and has established Conservation International as a leader in gender-integrated conservation. Her work involves skills-building for staff and partners, advising on project design and implementation, and supporting women in conservation leadership.