“Women, and indigenous women in particular, need to be included in decision-making on ecosystem use at all levels, as essential players in preserving our planet.” –UN Women
Ruth Badubaye has been working with rainforest communities in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) for several years. Formerly a GIS (geographic information systems) technician with Congolese organisation GASHE (Group d’Action pour Sauver l’Homme et son Environnement), Ruth is now part of our Community Forests project in DRC’s Equateur province. Part of a small team of legal, scientific and technical community fieldworkers, she works directly with local communities to support them in sustainably managing their forests.
The laws allowing local communities to legally manage their own forests have been in place for less than two years. Ruth’s job is to help these groups navigate the law in order to establish and manage their own official community forests. This involves a great deal of outreach across several villages that together represent 110,000 hectares and around 20,000 people.
One of the most important aspects of Ruth’s work is ensuring that women in these villages are involved throughout the project. As women are often overlooked or excluded from traditional decision-making, this can be a difficult job.
RFUK’s Community Forests Project Officer, Claire Parfondry, recently sat down with Ruth to discuss her experiences with rainforest communities on the ground. The following is an excerpt of their interview…
Claire (RFUK): Thanks for speaking with me, Ruth. Can you tell us how the communities you work with have reacted to this community forestry project so far?
Ruth: The reaction of the communities was a little complicated at first…. There’s both a logging concession and a reserve nearby, so the communities thought maybe we were there for this reason, or that we were going to take away their land. But after explaining to them, they understood that there was a really important opportunity for them to manage their own forests. In the end, most communities eventually decided to engage in the process as they understood that it was in their interest to do so.
Photo: Ruth delivers a presentation on DRC’s new community forestry laws | Credit: GASHE
Claire: Tell us about your experience leading women’s focus groups in these communities.
Ruth: There are communities where the women are more engaged than the men. Some women chosen as community representatives have been very involved, very active. However, in other sites they were less active and less open…
In big meetings, women sometimes do not feel free and are not comfortable answering questions – for example, because their stepfather or son-in-law is there and they are afraid that what they say will bring shame to the family. It's culture-related… But after we engaged with them they spoke more easily, more openly. They went even further, talking about some intimate issues. They asked a lot of questions and felt really interested in this project.
Claire: Can you tell us about a community member you met in the course of your work who has really inspired you?
Ruth: One of the women we met is the president of a local village association. She has many ideas that, if implemented, could really help the community. For example, she wants to have more communal plots to grow different crops in. And to support families, she wants some money to go into a communal fund, so that if one household has a problem everyone can help. She wants these activities to unite women. She wants to create spaces to talk about hygiene and education, to ensure that their children grow up by studying and to empower other women who might think that they are made only for cleaning, reproduction, etc.
In another one of the sites, there is a woman who’s a teacher, and she surprised us a lot. During meetings and focus groups, she was very active, very sure of herself when she speaks. You really feel that she wants things to change. For example, she took things upon herself during our training – she was always ready to speak, to ask and answer questions. She even organised a meeting with women to explain the process, on her own initiative. She encouraged her sisters and friends from the village to participate too.
Claire: For you personally, what do you like most about this project?
Ruth: What I like most is the gender aspect of all the activities, a participative approach where everyone in the community is involved… I like this approach a lot. ‘Gender mainstreaming’ means that there will be women's involvement [throughout]. Women are not only central to family life, but they also have an important role to play in the use of forest resources…
Women often use the forest more regularly and more frequently than men. Every day, they must go to the forest to gather wood, water and food. So I really encouraged them to participate and convinced them that they have a contribution to make. During our training sessions, they really amazed me.
**For more information on RFUK’s Community Forests project, funded by the UK Department for International Development (DfID), click here.