Not seeing the wood for the trees

Not seeing the wood for the trees

On March 8, the 113th International Women’s Day was celebrated to cherish and celebrate women’s achievements in social, economic, cultural and technological fields. Though the UN Women declared this year’s theme as DigitALL: Innovation and technology for gender equality, the situation in Nepal’s forestry sector is much poorer in terms of women’s representation, role in decision-making and their share in positions of power. This article sheds light on the need for gender-friendly technologies in the sector.

Women and technology in forestry

Nepal’s forestry sector plays a crucial role in underpinning livelihoods and conserving resources. Though women perform the most laborious and backbreaking duties in the sector from planting to nurturing trees to post-harvest labor, apart from doing household chores, they hardly get any role in resource management. Despite their important roles in the sector, women are marginalized and deprived of access to and control over resources and technologies. Adoption of cutting-edge technologies in the sector can support sustainable management of forests, increase output, and support effective production of forest products and services. Technologies aren’t designed so as to reduce the drudgery of women toiling on arduous field operations; this, in turn, ends up alienating women from the sector. The different dimensions of various technologies and techniques both digital—use of artificial intelligence, spatial technologies, social media—and non-digital—timber tracking, operating chainsaws, genetic selection and tree breeding, plantation and improved harvesting and transportation, industrial processing, etc—still have male domination. In addition, the practice-based traditional knowledge has not been acknowledged while introducing innovations in the forestry sector.

The socialization process embedded in Nepali culture equates the use of technology with men’s job: ‘heavy equipment is made for men’. This might have advantaged women in regards to performing their biological role, but it is a gendered role and subjectivity created by a male-dominated society. Freedom of mobility restricting women’s interaction with the outside world is another reason for women’s inadequate awareness of technological innovations. Technological barriers should not be taken for granted as it’s one of the main reasons that comes in the way of their leadership development. Due to unequal tech decisions, women and men typically have different degrees of confidence in their ability to learn and use digital skills.

Invisible barriers and glass ceilings

There are still invisible barriers and glass ceilings that discourage women from even participating in practical fields and adopting technology.  During our bachelor-level course at the Institute of Forestry in Pokhara, a male colleague screamed at the top of his lungs when a female colleague was handling a chainsaw in the course of a practical session. He came forward and told her, “Either handle it carefully or give it to us. It seems the machine goes out of control in your hands.” The female student’s face turned upside down, and her strong zeal to use the chainsaw faded. Another example of the technical disparity in the sector is that most community forest user group members prefer a male forest officer to perform technical tasks like operational plan preparation and timber harvesting process, undermining a female officer’s capacity and role. There are countless instances of women working in the forestry sector learning demoralizing lessons. 

In addition, forestry is thought to be riskier for women thereby limiting their engagement in technical and technological jobs. Even in the bureaucracy, most desk jobs (administrative jobs) are given to women, consequently having fewer opportunities due to undeniable technical barriers. Less than 10 percent of the officials working in the Government’s forestry Institutions are women.

Though the policies assure 50 percent women participation in community forestry, and the Constitution stipulates proportional representation of women in all state bodies, women in the sector hardly have their say, primarily due to established norms of male domination in decision-making. The country is believed to have made significant progress in communication technology, and the adoption of digital technology for gender equality is a mere reality. While the state offers women facilities like subsidies, low-interest loans and technical assistance, its technological arena is rather narrow for women. 

Most of the time, men take female trailblazers in technology as encroachers on their space. A majority of forestry tools that fall under the rubric of heavy equipment are expensive, requiring specialized knowledge and skill sets to operate and maintain, and were traditionally thought to be better suited for men. Gender-stereotyped societal expectations and social norms that are more in line with men’s physical prowess are leaving women behind. 

Gender-friendly tech in forestry

It’s genuine for sectoral policy and program interventions to demonstrate a sincere adherence to the creation of a gender-responsive technologies strategy that can address the various needs and experiences of women and marginalized people from various economic strata. From the start, their involvement in decision-making regarding technology creation, deployment, usage, and benefits should be guaranteed. It’s time to rethink and reflect on whether the technology is gender-neutral or gender-friendly or not. The forestry sector can become an equal and amicable place where anyone, regardless of gender, sees it as a potential and desirable workplace by adopting technological revolutions. Gender-friendly technologies and innovations are necessary in this sector to improve livelihoods and bridge gender disparity.

Technological aspects should be considered in gender frameworks and legislation to encourage the involvement of more women in the forestry sector. Women-led initiatives in technology and innovations are needed to address most of the bottlenecks that women face within the sector. To translate the slogan of “forestry for prosperity” into action, the government needs to enhance ownership and use of digital technologies for the advancement of gender equality and the economic empowerment of women.

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