In rural Côte d’Ivoire, women depend on forests for the subsistence and health of their families. However, despite the existence of laws recognising gender equality, they are not involved in decisions that affect forests and have very limited access to land and associated economic benefits.
According to Commander Bernadette N’Guessan, technical assistant at the FLEGT Permanent Technical Secretariat of the Ministry of Water and Forests and coordinator of the Women and Forests project, women’s participation in the Ivorian forestry sector still has a long way to go. This lack of representation is due “to a blockage at the social and cultural level, rather than a blockage at the institutional or administrative levels, and the major challenge is to put an end to the idea that forest matters are reserved to men”.
Since 2018, the Ministry of Water and Forests has committed to taking measures to effectively integrate women into the management of the country’s forest resources. These measures include the incorporation of gender strategies in natural resource management policies, as well as the implementation of capacity-building programmes for women to increase their participation in forest governance and economics. Among other things, such measures have already increased the proportion of women in leadership roles within the Ministry.
This greater consideration of gender is also reflected in the negotiations of a FLEGT Voluntary Partnership Agreement (VPA) with the European Union (EU), as well as in the first results of this process. The FLEGT VPA aims to improve Ivorian forest governance and ensure that timber and timber products exported to the EU are legal.
Although Côte d’Ivoire still has many challenges to overcome to achieve gender equality, the introduction of gender in policy discussions on forest governance, and in particular in the VPA negotiations, is a critical step.
For Commander Bernadette N’Guessan, these changes are key because “they improve stakeholders’ understanding of gender aspects, which is not always obvious. Women are now better represented in the VPA negotiations.”
However, this trend is not yet reflected in rural areas, where “women are generally excluded from decisions concerning the management of natural resources”, says Ahoussi Delphine, president of MALEBI, an association of rural women who work in the production of sustainable biomass.
The EU’s international partnerships strategy aims to strengthen the role of women in the management of natural resources. Taking gender into account throughout the VPA negotiations is therefore a priority both for the EU and Côte d’Ivoire.
For Chantal Marijnissen, chief VPA negotiator for the European Commission, "I am very happy that the Ivory Coast suggested as part of our negotiations of the Agreement to recognise women’s right to play a role in forest governance, and to be included in the sharing of economic benefits derived from forests”.
For the first time, gender is explicitly included in the definition of the legality of a VPA, which establishes the aspects of a country's law that must be met to ensure timber is legal. For example, the development of this definition helped “identify and include in the Agreement measures to ensure that the private forestry sector respects the maternity leave of women workers”, explains Commander Bernadette N’Guessan.
The VPA negotiations have also played a key role in recent legal reforms of the country’s forest sector. These reforms, which will continue beyond the signing of the Agreement, could provide an opportunity to facilitate women’s access to forest resources and land. This, in turn, would ensure a more balanced sharing of economic benefits driven from forestry activities. “Such benefits would contribute to generating socioeconomic development opportunities for rural women,” underlines Ahoussi Delphine.
Within the framework of the VPA negotiations, some EU-supported initiatives (mainly through the FAO-EU FLEGT Programme) have put forward innovative approaches related to the inclusion of women in forest management.
One of these initiatives is the Women and Forests project, implemented by MALEBI. The project increased the visibility of the potential of rural women in the management of forest and agricultural resources. "Despite its short duration – says Ahoussi Delphine – the project has demonstrated that an association run by women can perfectly carry out agroforestry-based reforestation, produce sustainable charcoal and manage a forest."
In light of these results, Denisa Salkova, European Commission focal point for this VPA, says the VPA constitutes a great opportunity for donors "to strengthen women’s associations position vis-à-vis the administration, help them find their place in forest governance, and reduce their dependence and vulnerability”.
While progress is undoubtedly promising, the challenge remains significant and unavoidable for Côte d’Ivoire and its partners, because, as Ahoussi Delphine says, "if we talk about sustainable development, we cannot leave women out of decisions that affect forest management. It’s simple: if we want to succeed, we need women to be on board.