Our best hope for 2018: Women elected to local politics

In 2017, Nepal held its first local elections in 20 years, a test of the country’s fledgling democracy after a slow recovery from civil war. Nearly 2,000 of those elected to local office were members of the Federation of Community Forestry Users Nepal (FECOFUN), a coalition representing 8.5 million Indigenous Peoples and local communities, almost a third of Nepal’s population.

This is a game-changer for both the local people who protect Nepal’s forests and for Nepal’s democracy itself. These communities will now be writing regulations that govern their resources—setting precedents for democratic forest governance in Nepal and across Asia.

Even more inspiring was the fact that many of those elected were women. Across the country, women now occupy 41 percent of all local, elected government positions—a huge breakthrough for Nepal, for women, and for the world.

Indigenous and rural women in Nepal have long been at the forefront of protecting community forests and resources.

Their strong performance at the polls was a product of FECOFUN’s 2005 decision that 50 percent of all elected office holders within the network—from each community forest user group to the Central Committee—must be women.

Women fought hard to achieve this milestone and have hewed their leadership skills ever since—both in their communities and in the political cauldron of the democracy movement, where FECOFUN successfully fought for gender justice and community rights in the constitution.

This inspirational story demonstrates the two most exciting trends of the past year: the growing number of leaders from community and indigenous organizations becoming active in elected politics, and the growing leadership of women around the world.

The number of women in parliaments across the Global South increased substantially from 2007 to 2017. Success in Nepal echoes the historic decision in Senegal in 2010 to require that 50 percent of elected offices be occupied by women, as well as Rwanda, which set a 30 percent quota in 2003 and now has more women in Parliament than any other country. And it’s not just the Global South—a record number of women are running for office in the United States.

This progress and momentum mean that the new priority in 2018 for governments, civil society, companies, and international organizations is to help these new leaders—and particularly the women—succeed. This is especially important in the many countries where national governments are not delivering the land reforms necessary to reduce poverty, stop deforestation, and promote peace.

Up to 2.5 billion people rely on indigenous and community territories for their livelihoods and subsistence—at least 50 percent of the world’s land—yet communities only have legal ownership rights to 10 percent. The benefits of closing this gap are many: increased incomes and food security, decreased conflict and deforestation.

Fully realizing these benefits requires adequate protection for the rights of indigenous and rural womenResearch shows that women’s participation in governing community resources significantly improves both forest condition and the fair distribution of resources. And a recent McKinsey Global Institute report found that advancing women’s equality could add US$12 trillion to global GDP by 2025.

Securing women’s rights is therefore not only a matter of gender justice and women’s socioeconomic advancement: it is also vital to the achievement of global goals on climate and development.

Yet laws pertaining to women’s land rights within communities—particularly their rights to vote and occupy leadership positions—are consistently unjust.

And real opportunities for progress abound.  In Indonesia for example, where the national government has only recognized a tiny percentage of the over 40 million hectares of forestland that rightfully belong to communities, the Indigenous Peoples’ Alliance of the Archipelago (AMAN)—the national network representing over 17 million community members—worked with local governments in 2016 and 2017 to advance tenure security over 1.5 million hectares of community forestland. Women played a crucial role in mapping their indigenous territories and setting the rules to manage their forests, and in the process they also clarified and strengthened women’s rights within those communities.

As many national governments falter in their obligations to rural women, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities by not passing the requisite laws or by failing to implement them, local leadership—and women’s leadership in particular—has the potential to drive progress around the world.

Like Nepal, Indonesia also saw great progress for women’s political leadership and community members elected in local governments in 2017.  For the first time, a woman was elected as the leader of AMAN, and women now lead the national network or communities advocating for agrarian reform, and many supporting NGOs.  Eight members of AMAN were elected to local office in 2017, with more preparing to run in future races. Their success will accelerate the reforms demanded by local people that so often fail at the national level.

As women and men from local forest communities take office across Nepal and Indonesia, I am hopeful that this movement will only grow stronger; that women and local leaders will play key roles in upcoming elections in Brazil, across Africa, Latin America, and the US; and that leaders everywhere will fully embrace the need to include those who manage the forests in their governance.

The world already owes a great debt to the women pioneers of Senegal, Rwanda, and elsewhere—and to the new leaders in Nepal and Indonesia.  We now need to do our part in helping them succeed.

If we are to eradicate poverty and avoid a climate crisis, the women, Indigenous Peoples, and local communities who have protected and cared for the world’s forests for generations must have the decision-making power to protect them for generations to come.

About the author: Andy White is the coordinator of the Rights and Resources Initiative.

This column was originally published on Thomson Reuters Place.

Photo credits: FECOFUN (cover photo); Dan Klotz (women in Liberia); Jerry Kiesewetter (fist).