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Shifting power for a gender-equitable land degradation-neutral world



Uche OkparaLindays StringerMariam Akhtar-SchusterUche T. Okpara, Lindsay C. Stringer and Mariam Akhtar‐Schuster >> More about the authors


Awareness that gender biases exist in land‐based activities has grown significantly. Yet, weak legal and social protections for women’s land use continue. This leads to women’s needs, realities and knowledge being overlooked. Although land supports humanity in many ways, progress remains slow in the global efforts to move towards a future where more balanced relations make it possible for women and men to interact with and care for land in equitable and non-hierarchical ways.

The UNCCD calls for the integration of gender considerations into land degradation neutrality (LDN) interventions. Close to 100 countries have taken formal steps to set LDN targets. 

In our recent study on gender and land degradation neutrality published in the Journal of Land Degradation and Development, we found that ongoing LDN projects fail to explicitly highlight how they tackle gender-related structural issues evident in male‐controlled settings. Issues such as discriminatory attitudes and practices can originate from cultural norms. And whereas women's representation in project planning and implementation is apparent, women are presented as a homogenous group. Little consideration is given to other distinguishing variables such as age, ethnicity and education. 

LDN is defined by the United Nations Convention to Combat Desertification (UNCCD) as a state where “the amount and quality of land resources necessary to support ecosystem functions and services and enhance food security remain stable or increase within specified temporal and spatial scales and ecosystems.’’ 


Scientists have clarified the approaches required for LDN to lead to the best land stewardship for the long term. LDN is enshrined in target 15.3 in the Sustainable Development Goals, and is desirable from a human rights and social justice/equity perspective. However, limited strategic guidelines on gender-responsive LDN exist.

Gender-equitable land care cannot be fully promoted without supporting LDN interventions that recognise women and men as equal, legitimate stakeholders in avoiding, reducing and reversing degradation. The good news is that LDN interventions offer many opportunities to link sustainable land management (SLM), land restoration and land rehabilitation practices in ways that can support gender equality and women’s leadership capacity in land matters.

Our study identifies valuable entry points for integrating gender issues into LDN efforts. It highlights the importance of engaging key constituencies/voices and stakeholder groups, and of global gender norms/principles and financial mechanisms to support approaches that promote gender equality.

LDN is, and will be, pursued and implemented in places characterized by histories of land tenure conflicts, gender inequality and ineffective land governance systems. To unlock the potential of gender‐equitable LDN requires multi-stakeholder collaboration and the support of those who depend on land-based livelihoods - whose rights and access to land must be protected and promoted for LDN‐facing initiatives to be sustainable. 

Incorporating gender analysis in LDN projects from the outset can identify activities in which women and men have unique know‐how, and reveal the critical training gaps for each. Women are often neglected when it comes to training opportunities. 

Assessing gender needs at the project inception phase can aid the development of sound gender capacity‐building programmes that enhance women's skills in identifying opportunities to articulate their priorities and advocate for their rights.

It can also lead to the development of indicators that ensure gender‐based skills gaps are closed. Opportunities for women's engagement and empowerment can then be embedded throughout the project life cycle. 

Rural women hold valuable knowledge on land use and management. Therefore, using gender‐specific ways of documenting and preserving women's knowledge should be central to LDN efforts. Increasing women's presence in high‐level community‐based committees and decision making will play a pivotal role in closing the gender gap in land ownership and management, and in altering actions towards a land degradation neutral world that is gender responsive. 

Most LDN projects rely on the Global Environment Facility (GEF) gender guidelines to identify and target gender bias. But these guidelines are weak on the gender dimensions related to cost and benefit distribution and on the mechanisms for safeguarding women's rights and privileges. Despite these shortcomings, they offer important general gender elements that deserve attention in LDN actions. 

These include: (i) making sure there are results frameworks that integrate gender‐specific data to reveal women's land rights, access to and use of land, and participation in projects from inception to delivery; (ii) merging project gender plans with existing gender schemes at both local and global levels, as well as ensuring project plans align with existing country‐level women's empowerment processes; and (iii) engaging gender experts/specialists in coordinating gender mainstreaming activities, such as the development of gender‐sensitive early warning systems and budgetary provisions enabled by gender analysis.

But more action is required. 

There is a need to develop LDN‐facing policies that align with relevant global norms or conventions on gender rights. For example, there may be a need to support cultural changes and move away from patriarchal land ownership norms towards practices that enable equally balanced gender rights.

One approach is to use the norms in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women to guide planning and implementation of LDN projects. A mix of environment‐related conventions and instruments, such as the Conventions on Biological Diversity, UNCCD and Ramsar Convention on Wetlands, which advocate for human rights and gender equality, can also guide gender mainstreaming in LDN processes.

Merging gender‐related conventions and commitments with country‐level gender equality mechanisms offers a pathway for advancing gender‐responsive LDN and for supporting the Gender Action Plan of the UNCCD, making it more effective through the empowerment of women and girls.[1]

Several international finance mechanisms already consider gender-specific issues and action plans before they fund projects, including projects under the UNCCD. Both the GEF and the Green Climate Fund have a gender equality guide with requirements for national‐level project planning and financing.

Harnessing gender elements in these finance mechanisms can strengthen LDN interventions in at least two significant ways. First, it enhances their legitimacy as being rights‐based and gender‐responsive. Second, it is more certain to deliver multiple benefits to both women and men.

Gender consideration in LDN offers considerable opportunities for pursuing LDN commitments that perpetuate equal participation of women and men, and for incentivizing poor or marginalized rural women to contribute to and benefit from LDN outcomes. 

For LDN‐related projects that are rolled out in communities with patriarchal structures, governments must ensure the LDN projects involve multi-stakeholder collaboration and are informed by appropriate financial mechanisms, human rights guidelines and/or global gender norms to achieve both gender equality and land resilience.

Accounting for these can offer opportunities for broader local buy-in, enhancing the legitimacy of LDN efforts and tackling socio-cultural norms that hinder women and men from working together equally in land restoration/rehabilitation initiatives.

See also:

Photo: (c) CYMMIT/Peter Lowe

[1] Further reading on the UNCCD Gender Action