A double-edged sword: Can formalization of forest rights empower women? - In conversation with Esther Mwangi

A double-edged sword: Can formalization of forest rights empower women? - In conversation with Esther Mwangi

the Netherlands - 14 May, 2019
Koen KustersKoen Kusters

In large parts of the tropics, women collect fuelwood, fruits, vegetables and medicines from the forest. Although they depend on these forest resources for their livelihoods, their rights to the forest are often not secure. Esther Mwangi believes that this should change. Mwangi is a principal scientist at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR), and here she talks about the relationship between gender and forest tenure – two topics she has been researching for many years.

Esther Mwangi Portraits-20190320-IMG_7831-13 (1) copy.jpgOne of the main problems, according to Mwangi, is that women are much less likely than men to take part in decision-making bodies, such as traditional village councils and forest management committees. These bodies determine the rules about who, when and how people can use the forest – decisions that ultimately affect women but are often made without consulting them.

Women deserve to participate in decision-making, she says – not only because they need to be able to defend their rights as key stakeholders but also because they have some unique contributions to make. Women go into forests as frequently as men do, but they go there for different purposes, meaning they gain knowledge that men do not.


In the last two decades, many governments have started to implement forest tenure reforms, recognizing the rights of local communities and Indigenous peoples to the forested lands on which they depend. An increasing number of countries now have laws in place that make it possible for local communities to claim and formalize their rights. Whether this will help women, though, is up for debate.

Could the formalization of community rights help to empower women?

In patriarchal systems, men are mostly at the helm of formalization processes, since land and related resources are owned or held by them, and because men are seen as having the capability to make decisions about land and land allocation. When you begin to formalize rights, women very quickly drop off the radar. It becomes a man’s thing, without cognizance that women too are resource users and managers and should be included.

So formalization makes it worse?

It is a double-edged sword. Formalization can have negative consequences for women, for example, when their rights and land-use preferences are not recognized or subordinated to those of men. Positive consequences occur when formalization processes are purposely designed to be gender-inclusive, when women are included in decisions about who has rights to what resources, how rights are allocated, and so on.

SUB: Mwangi’s work has included training citizen scientists to monitor water towers in Kenya’s Mau Forest. Patrick Sheperd, CIFOR


Civil society organizations (CSOs) often play a key role in the implementation of government policies that allow collective property rights to forests to be formalized. CSOs are not only important for building knowledge and awareness among communities through information campaigns but also facilitate actual formalization in many countries. In this role, they can support women in their efforts to take part in the process, from the early discussions about the desirability of formalization to the development of forest management plans and beyond. “It is very clear that CSOs have a major role to play to ensure inclusive processes,” says Mwangi.

Do CSOs pay sufficient attention to the gender inequalities that might exist within communities? Isn’t there a risk that some CSOs might idealize local communities as egalitarian mini-societies?

We all tend to romanticize communities, but we all know that communities are loci of social differentiation and conflict. When CSOs discuss among each other, I think you will find that they are well aware of the power dynamics that are intrinsic to many communities, as these dynamics are likely to influence the outcomes of their work. I think CSOs tend to switch their strategies depending on the arena they’re in. They may not wish to always play up local community conflicts as if they are insolvable. Also, gender-focused CSOs don’t shy away from talking about gender inequality among community members. I think CSOs need to coordinate among each other to make sure that a focus on gender and rights does not compete with other issues, such as indigenous peoples’ rights.

Is ensuring inclusive formalization enough to strengthen the rights of women?

In addition to inclusive processes, there is a need for the economic empowerment of women, and investments in education, so that women can generate value from their rights. Actually, education programs would need to target men as well. After all, women do not live in a vacuum. Men should be part and parcel of empowerment programs. In patriarchal societies, it is key to have men who are champions of women empowerment. Only then will inclusive formalization processes have the intended effects.


This story also appeared on Landscape news. This series will be continue to be co-published on Landscape News in the lead-up to the 2019 Global Landscapes Forum Bonn, 22-23 June, highlighting the forum's theme of rights.

Cover photo: A farmers group at one of Mwangi’s research sites in Uganda. John Baptist Wandera, CIFOR