Worthy of dignity and safety

Understanding and turning the tide on gender-based violence and environment linkages
Marseille, France — In the first-ever IUCN World Conservation Congress thematic session focused on understanding and addressing gender-based violence (GBV) in relation to environmental issues and threats such as climate change, member organizations discussed the steps they are taking to safeguard staff, partners and beneficiaries; tackle discriminatory norms that allow for or employ violence; and cooperate across sectors to better advance rights-based gender-responsive programming and results.
From Ak’Tenamit, an IUCN Indigenous Peoples Organization Member, to the Nature Conservancy, Flora and Fauna International, Conservation International, the Kenya Wildlife Conservancy Association, and WildAct Vietnam, speakers shared insights on why understanding and addressing GBV and environment links is urgently important for conservation action.

A call to action from Guatemala

In recognition of Indigenous Women’s Day, the session opened with the launch and screening of the short film A call to action from Guatemala: gender-based violence and environment linkages, featuring Lola Cabnal, Coordinator of Public Advocacy for Ak’Tenamit. Describing the violence and other challenges women and girls face in the defense of their environment and in their natural resource management roles, Lola called upon the global community:

“We need more practical actions, progress in programs that strengthen these capacities and that are sustainable, that are not just assistance programs. As indigenous women, we want to be part of the processes, to be involved and to be recognized as leaders, and that our rights are respected as owners of any action that is developed in our communities and with our villages.

– Lola Cabnal, Coordinator of Public Advocacy for Ak’Tenamit

Click to watch the short movie (4.5 min)

This call to action was answered by Dr. Grethel Aguilar Rojas, IUCN Deputy Director of Regions and Outposted Offices:

Click to view and listen to remarks by Dr. Grethel Aguilar Rojas

“As IUCN and its members work towards a just world that values and conserves nature, the protection of human rights, including the right to live in a world free of gender-based violence, must be at the core of any environmental and conservation intervention… Together, we are and will continue to work towards a world that better serves to conserve and protect people and nature.

– Dr. Grethel Aguilar Rojas, IUCN Deputy Director of Regions and Outposted Offices

Understanding and addressing violence rooted in gender inequality

A unique opportunity to engage and raise awareness amongst leading conservationists around the world, the session provided insights on the scale and impact of GBV worldwide, and how it affects conservation and climate action. Presented by Senior Gender Programme Manager Cate Owren, IUCN offered an overview of its research, which found that GBV is regularly used to negotiate, exploit, and reinforce existing privileges and power imbalances in relation to accessing, using, making decisions over, and benefitting from land and natural resources. These dynamics and risks are exacerbated in the face of environmental stressors and threats, such as environmental crimes like IWT, the activities of large-scale extractive industries, large-scale infrastructure and agribusiness, and disaster contexts, and a changing climate. 

Child marriage, for example, is now increasingly being documented across regions as a survival tactic when droughts, floods, or other climate-induced stressors put families in impossible situations.

GBV is also present in conservation work, as well as workplaces that strive to protect and defend the environment, affecting the voice, opportunity, inclusion, safety, and impact of practitioners, researchers, rangers, defenders, and others working across these spheres.

A violation of human rights, as well as a barrier to effective conservation, sustainable development, and climate action, addressing GBV and environment linkages, requires urgent attention, action, and investment. With support and partnership from USAID under AGENT (Advancing Gender in the Environment), IUCN launched the GBV and Environment Linkages Center to build knowledge, strategies, and communities of action, which works in complement with USAID’s Resilient, Inclusive, and Sustainable Environments (RISE) grants mechanism – a unique and critical opportunity through which IUCN Members and partners can continue cross-sector innovation and realizing a safe and healthy planet for all.

Together, we RISE

Moderated by Robyn James, the Gender and Equity Advisor in Asia-Pacific at The Nature Conservancy, a discussion was held with current RISE projects in Peru, Kenya, and Vietnam. Discussants shared context-specific findings and learning on identifying ways to address GBV-environment links.

In Peru, Cecilia Gutierrez of Conservation International (CI) Peru, described how they are collaborating with PROMSEX (a local organization dedicated to ending GBV) to work on GBV-environment linkages for the first time in CI’s history. In the Awajún indigenous community of Shampuyacu, Awajún women can experience physical and/or sexual violence at home over disputes relating to their work in conservation. The result was that many women were hesitant to participate in conservation activities. Without specific capacity and tools – and at times, a clear understanding on safeguarding responsibilities as an environmental organization – to address these issues, CI was inspired to apply for a RISE grant to close the gap. Working with 70 women, their partners, and male community leaders, CI is working to promote safety and equality.

In Kenya, Joyce Peshu of the Kenya Wildlife Conservancies Association is working with IUCN Member Flora and Fauna International to address social norms that marginalize women and contribute to different forms of GBV that reinforce attitudes about what women can and cannot do in conservancies – barring inclusive and effective conservation. Together, partners are working to promote gender equality while creating a GBV safeguard policy that includes referral pathways for addressing physical and sexual violence. 

Addressing unsafe working environments in Vietnam, Trang Nguyen of WildAct shared that she is working through RISE to enact, implement, and enforce codes of conduct that are supported by trainings, awareness raising, capacity building, and consultations with survivors. Two years ago, WildAct started national capacity building programs on youth engagement in conservation action. A brave student disclosed sexual harassment and how it led to her contemplating leaving fieldwork, Trang shared that, “We realized, we cannot encourage people, especially women and girls, to participate in conservation if our sector is not safe enough for them to work.” A subsequent first-ever study revealed that 5 in every 6 participants experienced sexual harassment and one in 10 witnessed rape or attempted rapes. 

Together, Cecilia, Joyce, and Trang agree that work to improve safety against GBV will improve conservation action. In Peru, women are not only increasing engagement in ecotourism and sustainable tea-making industries but also improving prosperity and gender equality. In Kenya, the support of local organizations with experience in addressing GBV and engaging men for gender equality has been critical for learning and application. 

On engaging men as partners in this effort, Trang added that it has been an uphill but worthwhile effort to encourage male conservation managers and leaders to support work to address GBV in environment workplaces. Cecilia shared that though many are aware of GBV challenges in relation to projects, hesitancy is often linked to a lack of knowledge and know-how.

A community for action

During the closing of the event, IUCN and USAID announced a scaling-up of their AGENT partnership as well as focused attention to addressing GBV and environment links in conservation and environmental programming. As noted by, Jamille Bigio, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, USAID: 

“If we want to drive climate action towards conservation and sustainable development, it is critical that we champion women and girls in all their diversity as they protect nature, secure critical resources, and combat the climate crisis. The leadership and contributions of women and girls alongside all people must be valued. They are worthy of dignity and safety and are critical to ensuring a sustainable and climate resilient world.

Jamille Bigio, Senior Coordinator for Gender Equality and Women’s Empowerment, USAID

Click to view and listen to remarks by Jamille Bigio, USAID