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Lessons From Uganda on Strengthening Women’s Voices in Environmental Governance

Ask Agnes Namukasa about sustainably managing fisheries in Kachanga, the lakeshore landing site she calls home in Uganda’s Masaka District, and you will soon learn about toilets. From her perspective, community members won’t address conflict between government enforcers and fishers, competition among neighboring villages, or pollution threatening aquatic ecosystems until they can first organize to address their most pressing daily needs. And in Kachanga, where chronic childhood diarrhea and a host of other illnesses stem from poor sanitation, those essentials include public latrines.

It’s become popular to say that the health of the environment and the health of human communities are interlinked. Yet much of the investment aimed at solving environmental crises still fails to make these connections. How can we do better?

One of the simplest and most effective means is to engage those most at risk in open and inclusive dialogue about the roots of current problems and strategies for addressing these. In most poor, rural communities in the developing world, that requires particular attention to strengthening women’s voices.

Fishing Fights to Biogas Toilets

Kachanga, like many villages dotting the edge of Lake Victoria, is heavily dependent on fishing, a sector critical to the national economy – and one fraught with conflict.

According to government data, fisheries account for 12.5 percent of Uganda’s agricultural GDP, and fish provide up to 50 percent of animal source protein in the Ugandan diet. With resources declining and demand rising, enforcement is a particular point of tension.

In September, the recently established National Fisheries Task Force impounded and set fire to 1,000 illegal fishing nets and gear collected from five districts around the lake, along with nearly four tons of undersized fish. The same month, four Ugandan fishermen died near the Tanzanian border, allegedly in a confrontation with Tanzanian pirates on the lake.

When adelphi and WorldFish launched an action research partnership in Kachanga and nearby communities in collaboration with Makerere University in 2012, we knew it would be a challenging place to test the possibilities of multi-stakeholder dialogue to address the roots of environmental resource conflict. While most research on community-based natural resource management focuses on places with a strong history of collective action, Kachanga forced us to ask, what does it take to build collaboration in a place with high migration, where community institutions have little track record, where government services are weak and mistrust is widespread?

During long discussions with community representatives, business people, and fisheries extension officers, it became clear that little progress would be made addressing the problems of fisheries co-management on Lake Victoria without tackling people’s underlying dissatisfaction with public services. Women participants in particular highlighted concerns over poor sanitation and public health, which ultimately became the initial focus of collective action.

“Now everyone shows up when we call a meeting”

The dialogue process was slow at the beginning. Ground rules had to be established and, despite the presence of women in local leadership roles, facilitators had to employ targeted techniques to encourage women to speak and men to listen, especially with higher authorities present. There were some confrontations, but ultimately participants learned a more collaborative way to get their demands addressed.

One of the early achievements was government co-investment in the construction of a public latrine. These toilets also produce biogas to fuel a common cooking facility, each managed by community groups and maintained by user fees.

Some women found their public voice through the initiative and these champions are pushing for action on other public health and natural resource management priorities.

“The district officials and fisheries officers came here and sat with us to discuss our problems,” says Namukasa, chair of the Kachanga village council. “I got a chance to speak about the issues we face. The relationships have been strong ever since. We used to have difficulty getting members of the community to meet. Now everyone shows up when we call a meeting. With the biogas system in place, people are coming to visit our community and see how it’s working. Even some government officials are using this example in their campaigning.”

Including the Excluded

Strengthening women’s voices is essential to improving environmental governance, shifting attention to the priorities that matter most for human security and welfare, and building the type of effective, inclusive institutions that are necessary to manage future natural resource competition.

Recent research in post-conflict settings has highlighted how rural women face particular vulnerabilities amidst conflict and how critical their participation is in peacebuilding negotiations and natural resource management institutions. A report by UNEP and other UN agencies concludes that, “Addressing issues of inequality related to resource access and ownership, participation in decision-making, and benefit sharing early on in the peacebuilding process is a critical condition for lasting peace and development.”

The same is true for conflict prevention. Rural households who lack a voice in decisions over the management of shared forests, pasturelands, wetlands, and fisheries face heightened risks to their livelihoods, particularly as competition increases between existing and new user groups.

Exclusion from decision-making increases vulnerability of rural households, making it more difficult for them to move out of poverty and thwarting broader efforts to achieve sustainable resource management. Poor rural women in particular often face institutionalized barriers to effective participation in resource management.

Structured efforts to create inclusive dialogue, like those outlined below, can help address those barriers, contributing to more equitable resource management and more resilient livelihoods. A policy brief from the Collaborating for Resilience initiative includes these recommendations:

  1. Conduct collaborative analysis to understand how gender hierarchies, norms, and values operate to restrict women’s participation. In organizing dialogue processes, facilitators can pay attention to power hierarchies and specifically support participants who are hesitant to speak up. A host of dialogue tools can be used to explore power dynamics collectively; for example, the “opening windows” exercise has groups assess separately and then discuss what they see as areas of open information flow, hidden agendas, blind spots, and unknowns.
  2. Create safe spaces for discussion within tradition. Inclusive dialogue aims to trigger changes that lead to longer-term transformations, including women having equal voice to influence development decisions within mixed groups. A gradual process to engage women and men separately may be needed to probe issues they are otherwise reluctant to express in a mixed group. It may also require identifying trusted intermediaries charged by a group with bringing their concerns forward.
  3. Design programs to contribute to transformative outcomes. Changing underlying behaviors, norms, and structures is complex and takes time. It may require changes in policy, law, and institutional capacities. It also requires linking multiple actors across scales and addressing power relations. Pursuing equity in natural resource management decision-making will not in itself resolve these broader challenges, but structured dialogue can help identify and address sources of conflict in ways that improve people’s livelihood resilience. It can also build experience in processes of social and institutional transformation that can be applied in other domains.

In Uganda, as elsewhere, ensuring that typically excluded groups are included in decision-making over natural resource management requires work to understand the barriers to inclusion and address these. It also requires a readiness to support the priorities that emerge from participatory processes so that inclusive dialogue complements long-term efforts to transform underlying inequities.

This post includes excerpts from “Supporting Gender-Inclusive Dialogue Over Natural Resource Management,” a policy brief by Clementine Burnley and Katharina Ziegenhagen. A fuller account of the Uganda case study can be found here.

Blake Ratner is the convener of Collaborating for Resilience, a cross-regional initiative to strengthen institutions for equitable environmental governance, and research director at WorldFish, one of 15 research centers that make up the CGIAR, the global partnership for a food secure future.

Clementine Burnley is a specialist in conflict and governance at local, national and regional levels, and a project coordinator at Migrationsrat Berlin-Brandenburg. She was previously senior project manager at adelphi, Berlin, where she managed the Collaborating for Resilience partnerships in Uganda.

Paola Adriázola specializes in multi-level governance and natural resource conflicts. In her development cooperation work as project manager at adelphi, she has focused on decentralization and environmental issues in East and Southern Africa.

Sources: Collaborating for Resilience, Daily Monitor, Entebbe News, UN Development Program, WorldFish.

Photo Credit: Scenes from Kachanga landing site, Uganda, used with permission courtesy of Ryder Haske/WorldFish; Video: Collaborating for Resilience.