Empowering women: a win for the environment and humanity

In a small village near Xuan Thuy National Park in Vietnam, Pham Thi Kim Phuong starts her day at 4:00 am, preparing food for the family and for the cattle. Before the sun rises, she bikes seven kilometres to the mudflats by the park's mangroves. There, she joins hundreds of other women who take advantage of the early morning low tide to manually gather clams and snails for food for their families and for selling.

Like most of the women in her village, she cannot get a job away from her home or village, and must stay at home to look after the children and livestock. From her perspective, going to the mudflats is one of the few options she has to help secure food and extra household income. But her trips also hold value of a very different kind-her experience gathering clams here has given Pham important insights about the mudflats and the surrounding mangroves which will prove invaluable in securing a future for her children and for her community.

The mudflats where Pham works are part of a protected area. Since 2013, an initiative to strengthen park management has engaged local women in co-management of the mangrove forests. Enlisting active community participation in caring for important ecological areas is one of the more effective strategies in protected area management. With the participation of the women, healthy mangrove forests are translating to better resilience for coastal communities.

Worldwide millions of women like Pham have traditional responsibilities as food growers, water and fuel gatherers, and care-givers. In South and Southeast Asia, women make up around 47% of the fisheries workforce (estimated to be as high as 80% in Viet Nam). They also make up 43% of the agriculture workforce in developing countries and account for around 66% of the world's subsistence livestock keepers. Women secure clean water for drinking and cooking; they are familiar with non-timber forest products (medicinal plants and alternative food sources); and in many countries they play a major role in managing natural resources for their families' and communities' wellbeing. Studies also show that women adapt more easily to change and when women play leadership roles, communities cope better with natural disasters.

While these are impressive facts, only 1% of women agricultural workers own land; they are increasingly at risk of sexual discrimination and violence as they traverse farther distances to collect clean water; they are not regarded as pertinent stakeholders in forestry and medicine/health sectors; and the world's financing mechanisms do not yet reach their small businesses and ideas. Women's contributions are often overlooked, undervalued and undocumented. In the bigger picture, this means that women's knowledge and experiences are not reflected in the development of environmental policy and governance.

This year's International Women's Day theme, 'Empowering Women, Empowering Humanity: Picture it!' reminds us how critical gender equality is to sustainable development. Empowering women-giving them equal participation in the use, access and decision making related to nature's resources-is critical for the prosperity and health of our society and of our planet.

Women in developing countries are more exposed to inequalities. In November 2013, IUCN launched the Environment and Gender Index (EGI), the first accountability and monitoring mechanism of its kind that ranks how nations (73) are translating gender and environmental mandates into national policy.

Among the 13 Asian countries that were part of the study, five (with the majority from South Asia: India, Nepal, Bangladesh and Pakistan) were among the weakest performers. The rest ranked as moderate performers. No Asian country was among the top performers, while the top 16 performers are OECD countries.

What does this mean for Asia, a region currently experiencing both unprecedented economic growth-and drastic changes to the environment? Asia's success in addressing sustainable development challenges for the long-term well-being of all their citizens is hinged on how seriously countries undertake their commitment to tackling women's advancement.

There are glimpses of hope in the region. Among the countries that stood out in the Index were Mongolia (highest ranking at 25) which performs extraordinarily well globally (but low on women in policy-making and protection of property rights); Philippines (26) ranking highest regionally for women legislators and senior officials and for gender-based rights and participation; and Viet Nam (28) ranking highest on percentage of women without anaemia and top in Asia for livelihood and gender-based education.

Pham's community project is one of the success stories promoted by Mangroves for the Future, a coastal resilience initiative implemented by IUCN and several partners and which operates in 11 countries across the region. Addressing gender issues in environmental concerns recognizes that women are key agents of change and leaders in the environmental arena. In the bigger picture, making sure that women have a greater say in decision making will be critical to the success of environmental policy and programmes not just at the community level but even right up to the highest levels of international law.

There is still a lot to do. But what is clear is that women's empowerment is an urgent and critical need-and it is not 'just about women', but about society and ecology. Closing the gender gap in the environmental arena will lead to huge gains in conservation, biodiversity, and in addressing climate change. When women are empowered, men and women become equal partners in carving out more robust, equitable and sustainable strategies for the environment-and for humanity.

The writer is Regional Director, International Union for Conservation of Nature Asia