Opportunities and challenges for empowering Nepali women in community forestry

Private forest owner in Sindhupalkchok with her son. Courtesy of Ganga Neupane

Srijana Baral and Kanchan Lama of ForestAction Nepal share some of the hardships women face in forest communities in Nepal. They introduce a new GLOW project that aims to empower women entrepreneurs to establish forest-based, low-carbon small businesses to enhance their climate resilience.

The Economic Empowerment of Women through Forest Solutions (WEE-FS) project is being implemented over the next three years in four municipalities in Nepal. The municipalities are in two regions: Sindhupalchok in the hills and Nawalpur in the Terai (Nepal’s lowland region). The project aims to generate evidence-based knowledge for women’s economic empowerment through low carbon, forest and nature-based entrepreneurial solutions that enhance women’s resilience against climate change and external pandemic and economic shocks.

The project is funded by Canada’s International Development Research Centre (IDRC), and implemented by a consortium of partners with diverse expertise including ForestAction Nepal – a research organisation, the Himalayan Grassroots Women’s Natural Resource Management Association (HIMAWANTI) – a civic network of women’s groups, the Association of Family Forest Owner’s, Nepal (AFFON) – a network of private forest owners, and the Federation of Forest-based Industry and Trade, Nepal (FenFIT-Nepal) – an association of private entrepreneurs.

Opportunities and challenges for empowering Nepali women in community forestry

The first quarter of the project has involved better comprehending the diverse opportunities and challenges people are facing. Particularly excluded groups in the communities of Sindhupalchok and Nawalpur include women and girls from forest-dependent local communities, single and widowed women, Indigenous groups, Dalits (also known as the ‘Untouchables’) and land-poor and landless groups.

Decades of conservation efforts and changing rural livelihoods have contributed to increased forest area. This, together with male out-migration from the localities (in search of employment elsewhere), offers ample opportunities for women to engage in forest-based businesses that contribute to a low-carbon economy.

Enhanced external development support in these communities has also opened up opportunities for women to participate in ’outdoor’ activities that expose them to more information about government policies. Development activities have included better access to drinking water (through taps installed at the door steps of homes), roads and internet services, and, most importantly, an enhanced presence of local government in the area.

Although living conditions are gradually improving for many, it is not the same for all women and girls, especially those living in poverty and belonging to socially-excluded communities. Forest-dependent communities are deprived of forest resources due ‘gender-blind’ approaches (where gender is totally disregarded) of community forest user groups (CFUGs). Forest guards often prevent women from entering the forest to access basic timber and non-timber products such as firewood, grass, fodder and wild food. We came across a huge collection of sickles and axes seized by forest guards, many of which belonged to women mainly from poor sections of the community, who had entered the forest to collect firewood and fodder. Hence it is of paramount importance to sensitise forest guards and CFUG authorities including women’s groups primarily relying on forests on gender-friendly approaches.

In addition to challenges related to gaining access to the forest, we identified that women and marginalised groups face multiple other risks – both non-climate and climate-related. These include women’s food insecurity, health hazards, unemployment, exclusion from public information, and the barring of women from making important decisions about forest and other productive resources. Communities are also ill-prepared to cope with (un)anticipated hazards such as floods and landslides and risks from a changing climate, including the growing rate of crop failure and food insecurity, and other new crises such as Covid-19. Amidst all of these interconnected hardships, women and girls are the ones to suffer the most.  

Although women's self-empowerment has increased in recent years, patriarchal values are still very active in a society that prevents women from assuming leadership to claim their share of forest benefits.

“Single women face social discrimination, we cannot voice our issues freely, how can we access timber and other materials freely in the same way, like other women get? Our turn seems to come last, although they say that there is policy for us, but we never get any special treatment, rather we have to bear curses from our fellow women in the public” - a Dalit women shared her struggles for obtaining forest products from community forest.

Women in forest-based enterprises

Forest-based enterprises offer economic opportunities to women through nature-based solutions to enhance their safety nets to absorb climate shocks and build resilience. Several women’s groups in Sindhupalchok and Nawalpur are traditionally engaged in forest-based enterprises, although at a small-scale using traditional knowledge and skills. Women-friendly innovations are needed for efficiency in the absence of technological advancement.

Women are engaged in preparing herbal medicines for treating gastritis problems and Covid-19 symptoms. The Bhujel and Thami Indigenous women are skilled at preparing bamboo and cane handicrafts including brooms from broom grass and mats using dwarf fan palm (Thakal). Some have informally begun to operate enterprises making and selling wooden furniture, however it is still challenging for women to get involved in timber-based products, both in their sale and marketing.

Cardamom plantation in Tripurasundari, Sindhupalchok picture by Srijana Baral
Cardamom plantation in in Tripurasundari, Sindhupalchok. Courtesy of Srijana Baral


In the Nepalese context, the extraction of timber or non-timber forest products is based on a management plan prepared by forestry experts. The management plan is based on a resource inventory and the management interventions are carried out accordingly. In addition, the women who are engaged in collecting these resources often possess indigenous knowledge on resource management, which contributes to environmental sustainability.

Forests in different management and tenure regimes, including community forests, private forests and leaseholds forests, all hold potential as sources of low-carbon income for women. Many households are found to own private forests and trees on farmland, but family forests are more privately functional and not systematically registered and documented. Many people, however, are unaware of the benefits of registering the forests and using them for commercial purposes.

This was evident during our conversation with Mrs. Kamala Devi Basnet, a private forest owner in Sindhupalchok: "My family owns a multi-storied natural forest on half a hectare of land. I raised the forest and expected it to be a source of income for educating my four children, but now I realise it’s not worth much. A trader came to me and offered a nominal price i.e. Rs 500/tree for medium-sized trees and Rs.1000/tree for big-sized trees. I want to explore the market, but I don't know where to go and how to get service I want". She is not aware of any technical support that she could obtain from the Divisional Forest Office. She is now thinking of registering the private forest.

Private and family forests are a huge resource for promoting women's economic empowerment, but women often lack the skills to fully capitalise on forest assets.

Problems in marketing locally-produced items due to the abundant supply of Chinese and Indian made paper and plastic items, needs serious attention from the district municipalities to discourage it. One option is to impose strict trade regulations to block its supply in order to encourage a market for locally-produced bamboo and cane items. 

Strategies for further actions

Forest-based enterprises need adequate policy back-up. Policies introducing subsidies, tax and VAT exemptions might support the women entrepreneurs. Women are active in managing forest resources; well versed in women's rights and gender roles, but lack adequate power to make decisions over forest incomes. The project can support by introducing women-friendly, low-carbon technologies and skills to support non-timber-based industries that could include a range of products such as handmade paper, Allo (Himalayan giant nettle) prepared clothes, and bamboo and cane baskets that are widely used by local communities.

Several women-led forest-based enterprises are not able to expand their business mainly due to unclear forest and trade policies. They face further challenges, such as lack of negotiation skills as well as opportunities to diversify products and access markets. Strengthening the capacity of women and introducing appropriate technologies to save women's time and labour, along with motivational entrepreneurship coaching, will be a priority for the project.

Financial institutions hesitate to prioritise women-managed enterprises (and timber-based ones), which needs to be addressed. To support enterprises and women's economic empowerment, local governments in Sindhupalchok have introduced a policy related to agro-based enterprise and applied through the micro-enterprise development programme in in the district. These initiatives need upscaling at the national and other local government level. The project will support the Ministry of Forests in revisiting and reforming policies and strategies to create opportunities from forests.

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Photo: Ganga Neupane