Q+A with the gender team at the International Union for Conservation of Nature

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A conversation between the Gender Rights & Resilience Program at the Harvard Humanitarian Initiative (HHI) and Cate Owren and Laura Sabater who focus on gender at the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN).

GR2: Cate and Laura: a few weeks ago, IUCN released its first-ever report looking at the links between gender-based violence and environmental degradation. As authors of the report, could you talk about the process that prompted IUCN to address this complex topic?

IUCN: We were driven to investigate this topic because we felt we had to — because evidence of gender-based violence affects environmental work and strategies every day, and yet there has been scarce research into the topic, much less tools to address it. Be it through personal accounts of violence issues coming up in projects, or reacting to stories of escalating violence in the context of a changing climate or related to environmental defenders’ work, gender-based violence and environment links have been increasingly coming to our attention over recent years in particular. This seems obvious to us now, having done two years of research — that, with increasing environmental pressures and threats, comes increasing tensions and conflicts — but when we started our research process, we didn’t know if the case would be so clear, or if it would demand attention as such. There was no existing resource on this topic, as such.

Now, we have documented evidence from across sectors to show clear trends. To eradicate GBV and to secure a healthy, peaceful planet, both being critical global goals, we need to look at the issues as they intersect and reinforce each other.IUCN has been at the forefront of identifying, understanding and addressing gender and environment issues together for many decades — championing a gender-responsive approach to conservation in order to meet interlinked human rights, gender equality, environmental and sustainable development goals.

We know that gender gaps of all kinds stand as barriers to meeting environmental objectives. Now, we better understand — and, actually, insist — that addressing gender-based violence specifically is a fundamental part of this equation. We have been incredibly fortunate to have a real partner and collaborator in USAID through our joint AGENT initiative — Advancing Gender in the Environment (AGENT), a 10-year effort to improve environmental programming through gender integration, and likewise realize women’s rights and equality outcomes through environmental programing. With USAID’s support, we developed a research process to map GBV-environment links across sectors and contexts, finding very clear trends. This evidence will now inform everything else we do as IUCN, and through AGENT, toward more gender-responsive environment results.

HHI: What were some of the most surprising or striking findings that emerged for each of you during the process of researching this topic?

IUCN: Perhaps the most striking finding was the sheer pervasiveness of GBV, particularly the multiple and overlapping types, forms, and expressions of violence, as evident across different environment-related sectors and contexts. From fisheries and water, to land and forests, GBV can be used to negotiate access and exert control over natural resources. GBV can be employed to diminish or silence the work of women environmental human rights defenders and restrict women’s advancement, visibility in, and contributions to environmental work and workplaces. GBV is increasing in the face of climate change. These are all core issues — interlinked issues — that our community needs to pay close attention to.

For example, as a part of the research process, we conducted a survey to thousands of environment and gender practitioners: 59% of respondents mentioned having observed GBV in some form during project implementation. Meanwhile, a significant majority of respondents said they didn’t know quite what to do about it, with further 71% of the respondents noting knowledge gaps on GBV-environment linkages.

What does this tell us? There’s a lot more work to do — from research to capacity building to better safeguards and standards. It’s a call to action not only across our IUCN community, but to our partners in academia, donors and finance mechanisms, and policymakers across sectors to join us in forging next steps.

Fortunately, USAID has already taken a serious and visionary step forward: based on our joint research process and findings, USAID created the Resilient, Inclusive, and Sustainable Environments (RISE) Global Challenge, funding winning organisations’ strategies to tackle GBV associated with natural resource access and control. As a global community, we will learn immeasurably from these promising practices in action.

GR2: The Gender, Rights and Resilience program at HHI has a number of efforts to look at the links between gender, women’s rights and environmental protection. One of the topics that has emerged for us in this work is the importance of individual and community resilience. When people feel more connected and empowered, this seems to relate to their ability to also protect the environment. Given your work on the recent report, could you speak to the links between human well-being and environmental well-being that you discovered?

IUCN: We have documented how women’s and communities’ empowerment and the strengthening of collective agency is key for the protection and conservation of the environment and can contribute to a reduction of GBV and the improvement of communities’ well-being. For example, raising awareness of women’s rights over land and natural resources and building women’s collective capacity helped mobilise women’s leadership and activism in the protection of the mangroves from the shrimp industry in Ecuador. In this particular case, while women’s engagement was initially met with violence, their success in the protection of the mangroves led to a positive change in power relations within their communities.

Similarly, we received a case study on an integrated project from a wildlife trust and a local organisation working on GBV-survivors empowerment to collaboratively reduce GBV and illegal wildlife trafficking around the Kruger National Park in South Africa. Through community workshops and advocacy campaigns they integrated a zero tolerance approach toward GBV and HIV/AIDS stigma and illegal wildlife trafficking, increased community knowledge about wildlife laws and women’s rights and supported alternative livelihoods to environmental crimes, such as ecotourism. This example shows how integrated projects facilitate broader community engagement and outcomes; in this case an increase of 500 percent in the reporting of human rights abuses that ultimately improved the well-being of women and the entire community.

GR2: Now that IUCN has helped lay the groundwork to look at this important nexus of issues, what are the next steps within your organization to keep the attention focused on such work?

IUCN: For IUCN and our community, this is the ‘super year’: 2020 marks Beijing+25, while at the very same time, countries will finalize the Post-2020 Biodiversity Framework and revise their national climate plans. It is also the year of our next World Conservation Congress, which brings together thousands of environmental decision-makers, experts and practitioners from all over the world. This GBV-environment nexus will be featured in a thematic Forum event at Congress, where we will feature not only our research, but also the RISE winners, demonstrating to the conservation community that change is both possible and already happening.

We are also very excited to soon launch a GBV-Environment knowledge platform, which will pull together hundreds of cross-sector resources and tools, as just one more step toward informing a more gender-just, peaceful and sustainable world. Stay tuned for more information soon!

GR2: Where can interested readers go to learn more about IUCN?

IUCN: Check out the following links: https://www.iucn.org/news/gender/202001/environmental-degradation-driving-gender-based-violence-iucn-study https://genderandenvironment.org https://www.iucn.org

Cate Owren is the Senior Gender Programme Manager at the International Union for Conservation of Nature. Laura Sabater is a Gender Programme Officer at the International Union for Conservation of Nature.

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Research and education to empower communities in crisis. hhi.harvard.edu | https://twitter.com/HHI

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