International Women’s Day: #Pressforprogress in Conservation

Throughout 2018 our marine biologists here at Love The Oceans will be doing blog posts on topics of Named Days throughout the year. To keep up to date, follow this blog, also found under the ‘News’ tab on our website. Without further ado, in celebration of International Women’s Day, I introduce our third blog in this marine series:

International Women’s Day: #Pressforprogress in Conservation

March 8th is International Women’s Day. Although the name suggests that today is only a celebration for women, there is reason to celebrate for us all, irrespective of gender! One of the things that we can celebrate today is that gender equality is no longer exclusively a women’s fight, but rather a fight by society for the benefit of all. Women are powerful and have the potential to do anything, even change the world, if they are empowered and given the opportunity – and when women are empowered it benefits us all.

While today is a day to reflect on and be grateful for how far we have come towards gender parity, it is also a day to acknowledge that though we’ve come far we still have a very long way to go.

In a world where most countries have established at least some form of gender equality, it’s quite easy to think: Do we really need to talk about women? (Usually with an emphasis on ‘really’, an implied ‘again?!’ and a whole lot of eye rolling). The answer is of course – Yes, we do.

So, why do we need to talk about women (again)? And how on earth does gender equality tie into conservation? Let’s start with why women’s issues are (still) important. Hopefully, you read our blog post for the International Day of Women and Girls in Science – if not, here’s a chance to catch up: Gender equality is vital for sustainable development because underrepresentation of women in professions such as science, social science and politics means that women are often left out of policy-making and programming decisions, effectively making it less likely that issues that affect women more severely than men are addressed and solved.

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Mozambique is an excellent example of why addressing women’s issues is key to solving both national and global socio-economic problems such as poverty, malnutrition and HIV/AIDS:  Mozambique is ranked number 181 out of 188 countries on the Human Development Index assessed by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP); same rank as South Sudan that is still affected by Africa’s longest running civil war… Translated into real-world terms, Mozambique’s low HDI score of 0.418 means that Mozambicans have short life expectancies (55.5 years), poor access to knowledge (3.5 years on schooling on average) and very low income rates (Gross National Income (GNI) per capita is $1,098 – in comparison GNI in the UK is $38,901).

With a 12.1% deviation from gender parity based on the UNDP’s Gender Development Index (GDI), Mozambique is also among the countries in the world with the highest gender inequality. While 12.1% might sound quite harmless, it has extensive and detrimental real-world consequences:

National adult illiteracy rate in Mozambique is 62.5% for women compared to ‘only’ 33% for men. Illiteracy among women is three times higher in rural areas than in urban areas (78.4% versus 34%). While the difference between rural and urbanised areas does exist for men too it is far less marked (45% versus 18%). Just as literacy, school attendance is also significantly lower for women than for men, and lower in rural areas than in urban areas.

High illiteracy rates and low school attendance is not just problematic for the girls and women who have poor access to education – it also affects the rest of the community. Unequal access to education for girls and women leads to reduced income for their families, poor family planning, increased malnutrition, increased infant and maternal mortality and reduced public health; all highlighting the urgency of tackling the core issue of unequal access to education. Securing equal access to education is the first step towards establishing gender equality and ensuring a better life quality, not just for women, but for everyone in Mozambique.

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In Mozambique education is mandatory from a child’s sixth birthday until the age of 12. Unfortunately, most children – especially in rural areas like the Jangamo district where Love The Oceans operates – never complete more than a few years of school. Education is free from age 6 to 8 years (Escola Primaria), and during secondary school (Escola Secundaria), age 8 through 12 years, the parents ‘only’ have to pay for the children’s books, school uniforms & maintenance fees. High school and universities exist in Mozambique, but few Mozambicans ever start, little less complete, any form of higher education.

In our region about 50% of men and 70% of women are illiterate. Girls are usually taken out of school when they have their first period and married shortly after. Boys are normally allowed to complete their mandatory years of schooling, but it is not unusual for families to take their sons out of school when they are 8-10 years old to help the family. The boys are sometimes sent back to school when they are about 13-15 years old to complete their last years of school.

One of the many challenges that schools in Mozambique face is a lack of resources: The class sizes range from 50-120 children, desks are expensive and therefore rare, and the school buildings are usually simple structures with concrete foundations, walls made out of palm fronds and tin roofs, or, at best, simple concrete buildings. The simple structure of the classrooms makes schools very vulnerable to tropical storms, such as the cyclone Dineo that hit Mozambique in February 2017.

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When Dineo made landfall in southern Mozambique, the Inhambane Province got the brunt of the impact. As a result many of the school buildings in the province were either heavily damaged or completely destroyed. During our 2017 field season Love The Oceans helped rebuild classrooms at two of our local schools, Guinjata and Paindane, as part of our ongoing educational projects.

As part of Love The Oceans’ commitment to Conservation Through Research, Education and Diving, every year we deliver educational projects about sustainability, biology, sea safety and marine resource management at Guinjata and Paindane school. Our educational projects have currently been running for 3 years during which we have taught over 750 children in primary and secondary school. In addition to rebuilding the classrooms that were damaged during the cyclone, every year we build new classrooms, and repair and maintain existing classrooms to ensure that the schools have the best possible facilities. As part of our commitment to ethical volunteering, we support local businesses by employing local construction workers to maintain and build new school buildings.

As part of our educational projects, our volunteers paint educational murals that are used by the teachers instead of traditional teaching materials that are expensive and scarce in rural Mozambique. An unexpected, but very happy result of our construction and maintenance work, is that parents no longer have to pay the maintenance fees that they previously had to cover to send their children to school, which means that our educational projects are effectively sponsoring free education for around 1500 children. Many of these children are girls, who would otherwise be the first to be taken out of school if their parents could not afford the maintenance fee.

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So, how about conservation? How does gender equality tie into conservation? Well, the beauty of gender equality is that it really does benefit us all: Securing girls’ and women’s access to education does not only improve public health, increase life expectancy and income rates, it also helps drive sustainable development, reduce environmental degradation, increase robustness against climate change and promote conservation.

The seemingly intricate connection between gender equality and conservation can be explained by the connections between poverty, biodiversity use and gender: less wealthy people rely excessively on natural resources and services provided by the natural world (so-called ecosystem services), making them correspondingly more vulnerable to the loss of natural resources. Because women account for over 70% of the world’s chronically poor people, women also account for a substantial proportion of the world’s population that relies disproportionately on natural resources – hence leaving women amongst the most vulnerable to the loss of natural resources.

With this in mind, it is remarkable that despite the fact that women account for nearly 90% of the workforce in agriculture in Mozambique and that the majority of farm and domestic activities fall under women’s domain, women are virtually absent in the policy and decision-making process in natural resource and environmental management and conservation.

If we wish to solve global problems such as biodiversity loss, depletion of natural resources and loss of ecosystem services, women must be included in conservation work, and enabled and empowered to be part of the solution. And when we say ‘we’, we mean everyone. Gender equality is no longer exclusively a women’s fight – it’s a fight that belongs to us all:

“The story of women’s struggle for equality belongs to no single feminist nor to any one organisation but to the collective efforts of all who care about human rights”

– Gloria Steinem, feminist, journalist and social political activist.

So if you care about human rights, #Pressforprogress by committing to a gender parity mindset.

Happy International Women’s Day to everyone!