Who are the barefoot solar sisters…and how can they help forest communities?

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Photo credit: Lisa Brunzell / Vi Agroforestry
In Kenya, a group of Maasai grandmothers provide an inspiring example of how simple actions can transform societies and how, when empowered, women can break down barriers between men and women.

These women never had the opportunity to attend school. But now aged between 40 and 50 years old, they found themselves with a new task. They received training and were tasked with installing and maintaining solar lighting systems in their villages.
The “five barefoot sisters,” as they are now known, are each responsible for lighting 15 houses. So in all, they cover a total of 60 houses in the Mara Naboisho Conservancy. Their training has enabled them to take part in creating environmentally and economically secure villages and it has also changed the perception of the role of women among participating villages in Koiyaki Location, Mara Division, and Narok South District.  

The “sisters” experience demonstrates how simple innovation can lead to socio-economic transformation and ownership.

This example can inform other areas, such as forestry, where women have always played a significant role in sustainable forest management in basically everything from agroforestry to collecting fuelwood and developing non-wood forest products for food, medicine, and shelter. Forest-related development initiatives, such as reducing emissions from deforestation and forest degradation (also known as REDD+), can learn from the experiences to date to involve women in program design and implementation through methods which are adapted to the needs of the forest community.

A socially inclusive approach—in which vulnerable or traditionally excluded social groups such as women, indigenous peoples, and other forest dwellers are treated as partners in planning the operation of funds and deployment of climate finance—has been a hallmark of the World Bank Group’s Forests and Landscapes Climate Finance Funds. The Forest Carbon Partnership Facility (FCPF), BioCarbon Fund, and Forest Investment Program* (FIP) provides technical and financial assistance to countries working on forest and climate change initiatives, and are also in the unique position to help support  gender inclusion in countries around the globe. 

These programs engage forest users and producers to foster benefit sharing and participation of women in local forest governance, tenure security, and forest-based livelihoods.

In Panama, taking concrete action to ensure the full and effective participation of women and men at the community level—by hosting a series of workshops and local activities - has helped boost the indigenous Guna community’s understanding of how forest programs can reduce greenhouse gas emissions and benefit the local community. A local organization, Fundación para la Promoción del Conocimiento Indígena (FPCI), implemented this small grant project (in 2013-2014) financed by the FCPF Capacity Building Program for Forest-Dependent Peoples and Southern Civil Society Organizations to strengthen the capacity of indigenous Guna leaders, women, and young people  to take part  in the emission reductions program.

Participating in a project supported by the BioCarbon Fund in Nyanza Province and Western Province of Kenya, women have taken on leadership roles in gathering information from farms and training the community on sustainable agriculture land management practices. Based on local tradition, women don’t typically own land, but they are actively engaged in the project and are known for adopting more diverse land practices and producing higher profits on maize yields. In addition to setting the stage for more gender inclusion in future initiatives in Kenya, the project was the first to issue carbon credits and develop a carbon accounting methodology for agricultural land management. 

As well as engaging the women in indigenous communities, forest programs also generate support from the institutions upon which they are built to ensure gender parity is prioritized. Ghana stands out as an example. The country has included a gender road map into its draft REDD+ Strategy in November 2011. According to the roadmap, the benefit-sharing structures, dispute resolution structures, implementation, monitoring and evaluation structures, and monitoring reporting and verification system will include a gender officer responsible for those aspects of program design. Ghana’s Forestry Commission staff at the district and regional levels, along with the REDD+ Secretariat staff, are also to receive gender training as part of their standard work plan.

Likewise, the Forest Investment Program’s Dedicated Grant Mechanism (DGM) program includes specific design features to ensure women are involved in the planning, implementation, monitoring, and evaluation of activities and other  gender elements in DGM decision-making. In Peru, the DGM program supports selected indigenous communities in the Peruvian Amazon to improve their sustainable forest management practices, with specific initiatives in native community land titling and community forest management. In recognition of the significant role that indigenous women play in forest management, funds have been set aside for smaller projects proposed or managed by women in such areas as food security, agroforestry, and timber.

With the focus of these emission reductions programs shifting to implementation, there is an excellent opportunity to integrate gender in program activities from day one. Likewise, the recent launch of the World Bank Gender Equality Strategy 2016-2023 and a session on gender at the upcoming Forest Carbon Partnership Facility Participants Committee meeting next week is focusing attention on the inclusion of women in development approaches to help close gender gaps and achieve results. Putting these gender-focused strategies into action on the ground is critical in ensuring country-level, country-led actions.

Women have tremendous influence over the design and use of sustainable solutions to climate change  and forest conservation challenges as household managers, farmers, and consumers. Bringing women into the design, planning, and implementation of forest and land use efforts promotes both gender equality and smart development policy.

*The Forest Investment Program is part of the Climate Investment Funds.


Ellysar Baroudy

Lead Carbon Finance Specialist, World Bank

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