There is a need to acknowledge the male domination in the conservation narrative and to change it
The relationship between women and the environment is deep and intrinsic – historically, symbolically, conceptually and practically. Not just in terms of day-to-day interaction and use of natural resources are women more in touch with nature; women are also important stewards of world’s natural capital as demonstrated in the case of Chipko movement of the 1970s.
It is a well known fact that many women in rural India on an average spend 6-7 hours per day to fetch drinking water for their families, walking more than 14,000 km a year. According to UN Water, across India it’s estimated that women spend 150 million work days every year fetching and carrying, equivalent to a national loss of income of Rs 10 billion. Women also contribute 50-60% of labour in farm production in India. The National Commission for Women points out that a man spends 1,212 hours and a woman 3,485 hours in a year on an one hectare farm in the Indian Himalayas.
In a sense, both women and the environment are extremely exploited for their resources and yet are unpaid for the benefits they bring to society. This, however, is often overlooked in conservation efforts and gets highly nuanced.
To give an example, the word ‘wildlife conservation’ is immediately associated with saving the “Tiger” when it comes to wildlife in India. However, in all of this, seldom do we talk about saving the “female” tiger first, as without it the entire specie would be wiped out. How about Save the ‘Tigress’ instead of Save the ‘Tiger’? The birth of cubs in any national park is always a good news, however, our deep engrained psyche of gender supremacy somewhere does not represent it well enough and alienates the other. Be it mass media messaging in the form of naming the conservation programme as Save the “Tiger” (instead of “Tigress”); or the use of tiger pug marks on merchandise available in tiger parks – both show clear male domination. Just as is the case of ‘man’kind, the ‘tiger’ seems to dominate the conservation narrative too. A quick google search on the topic takes you neatly to the feisty tigress of the animation film, KungFu Panda. It then becomes symbolically a matter of entertainment and amusement.
Even in handicraft production, the social construct compartmentalises the work perfectly. The preparation work for the particular handicraft is undertaken by the women, while men create the handicraft. As the potter uses the clay on the wheel to mould it to beautiful shapes, it is the woman who spends long hours and intense labour to prepare the clay from the ground. This however, is again unrecognised in the overall labour of handicraft, and mostly taken for granted.
Being a wildlife enthusiast, an environmentalist, a feminist and a social entrepreneur on a mission, I tried to revisit this equation of gender dynamics in conservation of both handicrafts and the environment. After quitting my job last year and travelling to the dry and arid Barmer, I discovered the unidentified handicraft of Kalavat embroidery in villages close to the Pakistan border. I trained women on how to use Kalavat for a living and introduced the female tiger pug mark as a design element in the traditional embroidery. It is a new way of bringing gender inclusion, conservation, poverty alleviation and livelihood generation under one roof. By marrying both conservation and handicrafts it serves to be a win-win situation for the community and the environment.
As social barriers lessen and more income is available to women, they make longer-term decisions about their environment. From conservation efforts to implementing improved agriculture techniques to responsible handicrafts, engaging women helps drive change and preserve the environment. But first, we need to recognise the need to change the conservation narrative, increase women participation, recognise their role and enable overall empowerment.