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Empowering Women in Natural Resource Management Critical for Lasting Peace

Woman Farmer in Sudan
A gum arabic farmer from the Jawama’a tribe in El Darota, Northern Kordofan, Sudan. © Grant Wroe-Street, UNEP

Geneva / New York / NairobiEnsuring that women have better access to and control of natural resources such as land, water, forests and minerals can improve the chances of long-term peace and recovery in war-torn countries, according to a new report released by the United Nations on November 6.

Women in conflict-affected countries are often primarily responsible for meeting the water, food and energy needs of households and communities. Many women are also active in forestry and artisanal mining – in Sierra Leone, for example, it is estimated that up to 90 per cent of small-scale gold prospectors in some areas are women. As such, they play a critical role in the use and management of natural resources, says the report.

Despite this, women remain largely excluded from owning land, benefiting from resource wealth or participating in decision-making about natural resource management in peace-building settings. This exclusion often extends to negotiations over the way that natural resources are allocated following a peace deal, with the result that women’s specific needs are rarely met during the peace-building process. For instance, the peace agreements in East Timor and Bougainville did not include any provisions on women’s access and rights to land, exacerbating land-related vulnerabilities for many groups of women and ultimately undermining their recovery.

“At a practical level, women form the majority of resource users and managers in peace-building settings, but this responsibility seldom translates to the political or economic levels. This has to change,” said Achim Steiner UN Under-Secretary-General and UNEP Executive Director. “Peace and development can only be achieved when both men and women access and benefit from natural resources in an equitable and sustainable way.”

Women are also insufficiently targeted in post-conflict recovery programmes that aim to support natural resource-based livelihoods and small businesses, such as agriculture. In Aceh, funding for economic recovery in the first five years following the conflict was primarily focused on the promotion of traditionally male-dominated commercial crops such as rice, palm oil and coffee, rather than the food crops grown by women. As a result, women were largely excluded from receiving any benefits.

“Women bear the brunt of conflicts in many ways. They often have to become the sole caretakers of their families and communities and are agents of peace and recovery,” said Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka, Under-Secretary-General and UN Women Executive Director. “Sustainable natural resource use is the cornerstone of development. Women’s full participation, and access to natural resources, are urgent priorities for rebuilding peaceful societies.”

The report contends that failing to seize the opportunity presented by women’s roles in natural resource management can perpetuate inequity and undermine recovery from conflict, as women have untapped potential as engines of economic revitalization.

The report cites research by Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) that shows that giving women farmers the same access to assets and finance as men could help increase yields on their farms by 20 to 30 per cent. In conflict-affected countries, where women’s roles in agriculture tend to expand, this could raise total agricultural output and significantly strengthen recovery and food security.

“Natural resources, such as mineral wealth, have the potential to provide significant sustainable employment opportunities for women in conflict-affected settings,” stated Jordan Ryan, Assistant Administrator and Director, Bureau for Crisis Prevention and Recovery, UNDP. “However, in reality, women are frequently unable to take advantage of such opportunities. Barriers that prevent women from accessing the benefits of these resources, such as low-literacy rates, marginalization and limited mobility, need to be addressed.”

Empowering Women
Women are insufficiently targeted in post-conflict recovery programmes that aim to support natural resource-based livelihoods and small businesses, such as agriculture. © UN Women

Women in conflict-affected settings also routinely experience physical insecurity when carrying out daily tasks linked to natural resources. In Darfur, for example, women and girls have been subjected to rape, harassment and other forms of violence when they have left refugee and IDP camps to collect such essential resources as firewood and water. This risk has been exacerbated by environmental degradation, which has forced women to travel longer distances – three to six miles or more, three to five times a week – to find a single tree.

The report urges governments and the international community to invest in the political and economic engagement of women in natural resource management and to end the entrenched discrimination that women face in accessing, owning and using critical natural resources in sustainable and productive ways.

“Women continue to be disenfranchised across the globe particularly in countries that have endured violent conflict,” said Judy Cheng-Hopkins, Assistant Secretary-General, United Nations Peace-building Support Office. “This research shows that when women have a seat at the table and their concerns are taken into account in the management of natural resources, the impacts on families, communities and peace are positive and significant.”