Nature and Biodiversity

How women can play a pivotal role in a more sustainable future for Africa's rural communities

sustainable future, rural communities; NAKOLO SHEA AND BAOBAB PRODUCTION

Women pick baobab fruits in Nakolo, Ghana. Prioritising female leadership and expertise in conservation projects could help create a more sustainable future for rural communities in Africa. Image: Tree Aid / Lema Concepts Africa

Annie Schultz
Policy and Advocacy Advisor, TreeAid
Lidya Valea
Monitoring and Evaluation Coordinator (Burkina Faso), Tree Aid
Nathalie Ouedraogo
Gender & Social Inclusion Officer , Tree Aid
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One Trillion Trees

  • Women are especially impacted by the climate crisis, but this imbalance is even more significant in areas like Africa’s Sahel region.
  • Climate crisis issues in this region are compounded by other problems for women including insecure rights and unequal access to land, health and education.
  • Understanding the challenges these women face, as well as prioritising their leadership and expertise in conservation projects will help to sustainably restore land, reduce poverty and improve food security for Sahel communities.

Women around the world are particularly impacted by the climate crisis. In Africa’s Sahel region, however, women are especially vulnerable to climate shocks. Temperatures in Sahel rose by nearly 1°C in the 30 years from 1970, almost twice the global average. These women also face additional problems such as insecure rights, high levels of unpaid work, and unequal access to land, health and education.

This also means, however, that women are often experts in locally-led solutions to the climate crisis. They are therefore pivotal to efforts to tackle poverty and restore sustainable futures for Sahel communities.

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One such effort, the Great Green Wall, is an African-led initiative to grow a mosaic of trees, vegetation and fertile land across the whole of the Sahel. Originally imagined as an 8,000 km band of trees, the project has now become so much more, aiming to stimulate job creation and local economies, as well as tackle poverty and the impacts of the climate crisis.

Women are the cornerstones of ecosystem restoration projects like the Great Green Wall, which offer a holistic solution to the interconnected crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and poverty. We must thoroughly understand the challenges that women face across the Sahel in order to prioritise their leadership and expertise in driving such projects forward.

What specific challenges do women face in the Sahel region of Africa?

In the Sahel, the combined impacts of the climate crisis – more severe droughts, flooding, forest fires and poverty – have lead to unsustainable land management practices and land degradation. The threat to rural livelihoods, which rely on farming and livestock, mean most adult men from these areas have migrated to urban areas to find work.

It is therefore mostly women that remain to maintain the community’s natural resources. These resources provide food, fuel, shelter and income. In short, the welfare of women and their families is closely connected to the health of local natural resources.


In spite of this, access to land and rights of land ownership remain very limited for women, and are difficult to secure legally. Burkina Faso’s 034 Law, for instance, stipulates equal rights for men and women to own land, recognised by a certificate of land ownership, but it is proving very difficult to enforce.

For example, once a woman is married in Burkina Faso, she loses access to her own family land, which she may have helped develop herself. Any plots of land her husband might give her to farm do not belong to her. Despite working to build fertility on these plots, a woman’s lack of ownership leaves her vulnerable to losing access in future.

Here are four ways to support these women in claiming their rights:

1) Putting women at the heart of dryland restoration projects

Women are key pillars in the fight against poverty and food insecurity in many rural areas. They are mostly responsible for the collection and processing of forest resources, and the first to devote themselves to improving living conditions, including health, nutrition and schooling. This is why it is very important that women are represented equally.

Before starting work in a new area, Tree Aid collects data about local women’s priorities to adapt our interventions according to their needs. In our Burkina Faso-based Forest Governance project, for example, we increased support for economic empowerment by helping to set up women's groups, which created empowering leadership opportunities for women in the community.

sustainable future
A group of women in Ouolodo village, Mali, learning land restoration techniques as part of the She Grows project, through UK Aid Match. Image: Tree Aid / Hamdia Traoré

2) Providing tools and training to help women thrive in Africa’s drylands

By identifying women in the community who are most in need, we can help them by providing training and equipment to process and sell non-timber forest products and generate their own income.

Tree Aid also works with women to set up nutrition gardens. These small communal village plots are dedicated to growing forest products such as moringa and baobab leaves for consumption and sale.

Supporting women to create a more sustainable future for Africa's rural communities
Actions that have supported African women to create a more sustainable future for rural communities. Image: Growing Food & Incomes, Tree Aid

3) Measuring the impact of women’s leadership opportunities

Our evaluation surveys show us the economic power that leadership roles can give women, including more agency and influence in family decision making. For example, the number of women that declared access to resources in our Growing Food & Incomes project grew from 28% in 2019 to 46% in 2020.

Increased income benefits the status of women in the community. Group membership also provides women with an important mutual support network. When times are hard, these groups can support each other by running savings and loan schemes, for example.


4) Shifting perspectives on gender roles

Improving women’s access to resources, and their roles in maintaining them, is an important part of creating social change in Africa’s dryland communities.

Women are particularly central to forest management, in part because they depend on forests the most. In the commune of La-Toden in Burkina Faso, for example, the forest is only managed by women. Four women's groups already existed before Tree Aid began work there, and are now incorporated into the larger project to preserve forests and raise livelihoods.

Despite this, we found that many conservation actions locally were mostly still led by men, however, such as the construction of ‘half-moons’ to conserve water. This could be addressed by establishing structures at the communal level for women to participate in the management of resources, such as the CIVG (inter-village forest management committee) and land charters (a set of rules governing acceptable practices within a given forest).


What’s the World Economic Forum doing about climate change?

The future of women and the Great Green Wall

Africa’s drylands require healthy ecosystems to thrive, not just survive. Given their expertise and experience in land management, investment in women is critical to scale up ecosystem restoration projects like the Great Green Wall.

Women must also be supported through better access to land, economic development and leadership roles. With this in place, we can ensure ambitious projects like the Great Green Wall restore land in a way that sustainably meets the needs of people and planet, reducing poverty and improving food security and nutrition for all Sahel communities.

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