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Affirmative Policy in Nepal’s Community Forestry: Does it Make a Difference in Terms of Social Sustainability?

Independent Researcher, 31100 Treviso, Italy
Rural Studies Group, Faculty of Education, Free University of Bolzano, 39016 Bressanone, Italy
Author to whom correspondence should be addressed.
Sustainability 2022, 14(9), 5598;
Submission received: 27 February 2022 / Revised: 26 April 2022 / Accepted: 30 April 2022 / Published: 6 May 2022
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Forest Policy and Management Practices for the 21st Century)


Decentralized forest management is criticized for not involving women in decision-making. The study explores what the introduction of affirmative policy in community forestry committees means for the participation of women in decision making in four cases in the middle hills of Nepal. The qualitative analysis of interviews and observations draws on feminist political ecology, a women’s participation typology, the critical mass theory and gender justice. The findings centre on the importance of electoral procedures, the role of authorities, the role of the familial context and whether and how women internalized and contested patriarchal norms. The women’s quota was found to have had as yet little impact on substantive participation, yet the enhanced exposure of female committee members to the discrepancy between the gender equality discourse introduced in community forestry and the persistent male domination seemed to create, in a few women performing as critical actors, an enhanced awareness of male suppression; an awareness that is a prerequisite for contestation of those patriarchal norms denying women access to power over forest and, generally speaking, of gender injustice. This research reports examples of women, brought in the executive committees by the studied affirmative policies, successfully contesting traditional gender roles and gender injustice, negotiating for them and for the other women, a more effective and meaningful participation in the management of Community Forests.

1. Introduction

1.1. General Overview

A large proportion of rural people in developing countries use forest and other environmental products to support their livelihoods [1], and local forest users are increasingly involved in forest management [2]. While forest decentralization programmes have been relatively successful in terms of conserving forests [3,4], particularly in Nepal [5], they are criticized for not involving women, who are often heavily engaged in forest management activities [6] and whose social identities are shaped by them [7]. However, when it comes to decision-making, women’s participation seems to be anything but substantial [8,9,10,11,12]. At the same time, their participation is considered a prerequisite by international development agencies and bilateral donors for achieving effective and fair development [13,14], and affirmative policy is widely introduced to increase the representation of women in various fora. Gender quotas for political office have been introduced in half of the countries of the world for their parliaments [15], and mandatory representation of women in ad hoc committees is a common ingredient in development projects. Descriptive participation does not, however, automatically lead to substantive participation [16,17], and gender quotas may reinforce gender stereotypes, be amenable to cooption by others and make no difference with regard to more entrenched gender roles [8,18,19,20].
Mandatory gender quotas were first instituted in Nepal’s community forestry by the Master Plan for the Forestry Sector in 1989 [21] and the Community Forestry Guidelines in 1995 [22], and were later reinforced in the subsequent versions of the Guidelines. The potential of this structural change for enhancing women’s agency is believed to be promising [23], but a transformative perspective ought to be used when studying gender dynamics related to forest management [24], with a particular focus on the circumstances that may bring critical actors [17] to perform critical acts [25] in favour of women’s renegotiation of their social identities. Through a multiple case study approach this paper explores what the introduction of quotas means for women’s participation in community forestry decision-making. The analysis draws on feminist political ecology (FPE) in that it “treats gender as a critical variable in shaping resource access and control” [26] (p. 4), [7] and on notions of women’s internalization and contestation of cultural norms proposed by Kabeer [11].
This qualitative study, at first, presents an explanation of gender in the context of Nepalese culture and of community forestry in particular. It follows presenting Feminist Political Ecology and the Critical Mass theory as conceptual and analytical frameworks used to interpret the data collected on the field. The results are presented focussing on the electoral procedure of the Forest User Group’s (FUG) executive committee members, on the controversial role and twofold approach of the state representatives toward women involvement, completing with a description of the role of cultural patriarchal norms on the conduct of women in the FUGs and on the society. Despite the research has been conducted in 2014 by a European white man, the results seem to be relevant to enhance the discussion on female role in natural resource management and community forestry. In fact, there is a growing debate over the use of Nepalese community forests for commercial purpose [27]. Community forests have been managed for decades for their restoration and for the mere satisfaction of the members’ household needs, while, now that forests have reached a satisfactory level of restoration, there is a growing interest for the higher profit that might be generated from their commercial use. The widespread phenomenon of urbanization coupled with that of men outmigration, leaves on women the responsibility over forest resources and their potential role as source of income for the communities [28]. Community forestry programme in Nepal is among the most successful project of forest decentralized management in the world. However, there is still a lack of understanding of the role that women can play in this historical period despite the numerous studies. This is even more relevant in consideration of the critical role that Nepalese Community Forests can play in mitigation and adaptation to climate change [29].
This research investigates specific cases where affirmative polices have been applied to Nepalese FUGs. The study shows that besides the increased numeral representation of women in the Forest User Groups’ executive committees, the introduction of affirmative policies was found to bring a result in terms of increased women awareness of male suppression; awareness that is a prerequisite for contestation of those patriarchal norms denying women access to power over forest and, generally speaking, of gender injustice.

1.2. Contextualization of Gender and Reservation Policies in Nepal

Nepalese society is patriarchal and highly hierarchical, especially along gender, caste, ethnicity and class relations, conceptualizing gender as the “economic, political and cultural attributes associated with being a man or a woman” [30] (p. 3). The caste system originates in Hindu religion and was introduced and incorporated into the Nepalese social hierarchy through the civil code of 1854. Although it is no longer legally valid, the intentions of the code continue to structure social interaction, and especially people from disadvantaged castes, also known as Dalits, are excluded from social, political and economic activities. Similar to Agarwal’s [31] characterization of Indian society, gendered behavioural norms limit Nepalese women’s aspirations for voice and education and impose a gender-specific division of labour, and the structure of the social space constrains their mobility [20]. As a result, women may not participate on an equal footing with men in public gatherings and therefore do not have access to public information. They may not move freely beyond the domestic sphere and are severely disadvantaged when trying to find employment outside the household or to engage in entrepreneurial activities [32,33]. It has been observed that even when women do try to change their livelihood activities to cash-earning activities, they still generally work in rural enterprises or in the commercialization of farm products, reinforcing their link with farm and forest; conversely men have much more freedom to look for wage-based jobs or to out-migrate [34]. Culturally, men are valued higher than women [35], and patrilocal marriage practices together with patrilineal inheritance and kinship [36] combined with the traditional male hegemony over timber-focused forest management [37] serve to reinforce this norm. Further, women’s subjectivities are formed within the prevailing habitus of male hegemony—using Bourdieu’s concept—meaning that women perceive male privileges and their own subordination as reasonable and natural [38].
In a descriptive sense, Nepal has gone relatively far in promoting women’s political participation. The Constitution of Nepal was promulgated in 2015 and amended in 2016, after ten years of civil war and eight years of transitory constitution. It strongly promotes equal rights for women and for any marginalized part of the society as it requires that “at least one third of the total number of members elected from each political party representing in the State Assembly must be women”. The same provision applies to representation in the Federal Parliament [39]. The Local Government Operation Act 2017 requires 40% of women’s representation at the ward level. Similar reservation policies are also provided for at Municipality and District level [40,41,42]. Given the percentages of representation required by these new legislations, according to the ‘story of the critical mass theory’ [16], a transformation from descriptive to substantive participation is not unlikely. There is little evidence, however, that such a transformation is taking place in the legislative sphere or that the participation of women has spread to the judiciary and executive spheres, as might be expected if the social climate of political life had become much more inclusive [43]. Further, it is not clear that the elected women represent women generally [44,45]. The relatively high proportion of women in the constituent assembly, therefore, has not translated into governance. Problematics of substantive participation and representation remain, perhaps reflecting a tokenistic approach to the inclusion of women in decision-making.
Images of Nepalese women result from traditional and modern Nepalese sources as well as international influences, given that the country receives substantial amounts of foreign financial assistance. In 2014/15, 41% of the total budget allocated to public projects came from foreign grants and loans, and this dependency likely means that public policies reflect donors’ as well as national political agendas [46]. Nepal’s national impetus for instituting social inclusion, including gender equality, may therefore, at least to some degree, reflect international agendas such as the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, which commits international society to achieving gender equality and empowering all women [47]. A discrepancy between traditional Nepalese and international norms [33,48] and between theories and women’s and men’s lived experiences [49] is possibly one of the reasons why policy instruments and implementation practices differ. However, there are also different yet co-existing international notions of women [13], and images of vulnerable or resourceful women in developing countries can be invoked depending on the purposes [50,51].

1.3. The Gendered Nature of Community Forestry in Nepal

Forest decentralization in Nepal is considered quite successful in terms of conservation [5,52]. A national programme is in place which, according to the last available data, involves more than 16 million people in about 22,500 Forest User Groups (FUGs), managing a total forest area of 2,359,577 ha [42]. Concerns with women’s participation in community forestry, however, was not a strong priority at the beginning of the programme. When forest decentralization was initiated in the late 1970s, the focus was on forest conservation and fulfilment of basic needs such as firewood and small timber; there was not much talk about women’s participation [21,42,53]. Gradually, concerns with gender equality emerged [54]: gender quotas in FUGs’ executive committees (hereafter ‘committees’) were introduced and implemented in some places and established formally in 1989 [55] and systematically in 1995 [56]. The current rules, introduced by the Guidelines for the Community Forestry Development Programme [22], require that at least 50% of the members of the community forestry committee should be women, one of two key posts (chairperson and secretary) should be occupied by a woman and at least one of the signatories of the bank accounts should be a woman. The enforcement of these requirements is facilitated by the need for periodical renewals of forest operational plans; forest products cannot be commercialized without a valid plan. Further, in a given household, one woman and one man should be registered as members of the community forest users group, and 50% of the attendants at the general assembly should be women [22]. Subsequent to these rules the number of women in community forestry committees has been greatly enhanced, but according to Chhetri [57], their participation is far from substantive.
Forestry in Nepal is still predominantly a male domain, with men occupying the large majority of positions in both central administration and educational institutions [58,59,60]. Forest officers tasked with promoting affirmative action in community forest user groups reportedly perceive this to be largely a donors’ agenda [14]. The reported discrimination of women in community forestry continues in terms of differential access to forest resources, economic resources arising from forest management, information and participation in decision-making [32,61,62]. New opportunities for women’s involvement have been reported, where men have migrated in search of job opportunities, creating a space for women to attend assemblies and voicing their opinion [23] and where smaller arenas of interaction have been provided [63], although being present at FUG meetings cannot in and of itself be taken to imply participation in the process [20].

2. Analytical Framework and Methodological Remarks

2.1. Feminist Political Ecology

While considering the role of women in socio-political context several conceptual frameworks are available: feminist theory [64], eco-feminism [65], maternal feminism [66] and Feminist political ecology [67] between others. The latter, in our understanding, offers a perspective of society and the economy that tries to embed care, ecology and social reproduction in the discourse about collective life, focusing attention on the exploitation of women and Nature within capitalist society [68]. FPE takes as its starting point “the concept of living economies [which] proposes that we redesign our economies so that life is valued more than money and power resides in ordinary women and men who care for each other, their community and their natural environment” [68] (p. 2). Furthermore, “taking care is an activity that includes everything that we do to maintain, continue, and repair our ‘world’ so that we can live in it as well as possible” [69] (p. 190). FPE is in itself an attempt to focus on transformation on a small, local scale, avoiding the sense of inadequacy created by the capitalist system [70], making space in a process of unmaking of capitalist practices [71]. Contrary to the latter, it requires rethinking the relationship between Humans and Nature, with an awareness of the cultural biases given by patriarchy, eurocentrism, capitalism, anthropocentrism, and so on [72]. Another critical aspect pointed out by FPE concerns externalities, from the capitalistic point of view, generated by women’s domestic and reproductive labour as well as by Nature [73]. Neo-liberalism considers women’s reproductive and care work as well as natural resources as something that is taken for granted and freely available on an unpaid basis: this attitude fails to consider the fundamental and intrinsic value of women and Nature for human existence. FPE considers the community-based economy to be vital, which gives value to the logic of ‘enough’, common wellbeing, communing and intergenerational pact: “A community economy is defined here as a space of decision-making where we recognize and negotiate our interdependence with other humans, other species, and our environment. In the process of recognizing and negotiating, we become a community” [74] (p. 139).
The situation in the Global South deserves a special look through an FPE lens. In this broad framework, Mollett and Faria [75] call for a resolute stance in adopting a post-colonial, intersectional FPE that considers race and whiteness in their interaction with gender, especially when approaching the issue of natural resources access and control in the Global South. This seems to be crucial for understanding how capitalism and patriarchy related culture and imaginary are shaping women’s condition of subordination. As early as twenty-seven years ago, Rocheleau [76], pointed out how women constitute ‘landscape midwifery’ and hold the knowledge of life protection and survival, integrating life-on-earth with human livelihoods. In this sense, a more decentralized control over resources can provide a factual improvement of livelihoods for women in the Global South [77]. In the Global South political and technical solutions to foster gender equality often collide with behavioural habits that produce and reproduce hierarchy [78] and, there, a new element of change in the balance between gender, labour and land is the tendency towards domestic and transnational migration of women [79].
In conclusion, for FPE, ecology and sustainability are not gender-neutral issues. The connection between Nature and the Feminine is not purely a matter of common imaginary. On the contrary, the patriarchal claim to appropriate natural resources has its darkest side in the exploitation women’s reproductive ability, both as life-givers and as caregivers [68]. In this article, we have chosen FPE as a lens to read and understand women inclusion in forestry management. This lens has been applied during the analytical phase only, while during research design and data collection a more neutral approach has been preferred.

2.2. Critical Mass Theory in Feminist Studies

According to critical mass theory studies applied to gender issues, there should be at least three women on a board or council if women are to have any chance of influencing the decision-making process [80]. In specific cases, such as in criminal justice courts [81], the number of women in the courts seems to affect the behaviour of women jurists, showing the applicability of critical mass theory in these contexts. At the same time, the number and proportion of women in the legislatures and decision-making places is not enough, in and of itself, to ensure a real effect in decision-making processes, and it sometimes happens, as in the case of New Zealand, that increasing the number of women in political contexts can produce a rise in anti-feminism [82]. On the other hand, Bratton [83] suggests that a female critical mass is not required to obtain an effect in proposing a women-friendly political agenda. Although critical mass theory has been strongly criticized by gender studies, Sarah and Mona [84] suggest that in fact these studies are consistent with the original concept and show consistency of the results in the direction of understanding how it is possible to foster more women-friendly politics through critical mass. For instance, the study conducted by Norris and Lovenduski [85] substantially demonstrates how there is no significant difference between women and men as concerns general values and priorities, including in their orientation towards a free market economy and moral traditionalism. However, a major difference is found when looking at the degree of attention paid to affirmative action and gender equality. At the same time, in certain specific contexts it is quite evident that women accept the gender discriminations in place, reproducing and reinforcing patriarchal patterns, regardless of critical mass [86].
Childs and Krook [17] offer a very illuminating perspective on the relevance of critical actors. According to their findings, critical actors are much more relevant than women reaching a critical mass. The authors state that what matters is “how the substantive representation of women occurs” and “what specific actors do” to allow women’s issues to be taken up (p. 143). According to this perspective, critical actors may be identified as those who may “(1) operate on their own or as a group; (2) succeed or fail in efforts to promote women’s concerns; and (3) be male or female, although they will tend to be female (p. 140). We take these characteristics as guidelines to identify whether and to what extent women in Nepal’s forestry sector can really be considered critical actors. One significant characteristic of critical actors is “their relatively low threshold for political action: they may hold attitudes similar to those of other representatives, but they are much more motivated than others to initiate women-friendly policy reforms” [17] (p. 138). In conclusion, what seems to be needed is a definition of what “makes a difference” in order to understand the extent to which a critical mass or a critical action affect the discourse of “descriptive” and “substantive” representation of women [16].

2.3. Methodology

A multiple case study approach [87,88,89] was followed in which the gender dynamics in community forestry decision making was studied in four FUGs located close to the city of Pokhara, in Nepal’s Western Development Region. In two of the four FUG executive committees the members were formally exclusively female, while in the other two both women and men were included. Data were collected by the first author through:
  • 80 semi-structured interviews (SSI) with all the women and men involved in the ECs and with advisors of the current committees. Where considered relevant, also members or advisors of previous mandates were interviewed. The aim was to capture perceptions and opinions about the efficacy of women’s participation in the executive committee meetings in relation with the number of women involved in the committee.
  • 8 group interviews with women members in the FUG but not part in the EC, who were characterized as poor or wealthy (two separate groups in each FUG with 6–8 women each group) with the aim of capturing differences in perceptions, between women belonging to different well-being ranks, about the effectiveness of women EC members’ participation in decision making processes in the EC.
  • 73 individually filled-in questionnaires on selected women and men members of the CFUG, but non-EC members, in order to collect information about gender issues, women’s participation in CFUG management, fund mobilization and distribution and benefit sharing between men and women and among the different households. The sample to be subjected to the survey was selected through systematic random sampling. In order to ensure equal representation of men and women among the respondents, alternately women and men were chosen within the selected household. Household of FUG members already involved in SSI or in group interviews were excluded from the sample selection. The plan was to administer 20 questionnaires in each FUG; however, in Mahila FUG, due to the outmigration and to the low number of household members, the number of questionnaires, had to be reduced. This qualitative questionnaire survey was structured as the last step of the research, in order to have a clear idea of the questions that were worth asking [90] with the aim to yield information potentially useful to prove, or disprove, and triangulate versions provided by other respondents in other contexts.
  • Observation during 5 committee meetings, without any type of intervention in the discussion. It allowed to observe the interactions, in a real setting, and during discussion on real-life topics, appreciating differences in terms of influence between men and women and among women.
  • Document analysis (FUG constitutions, operational plans, annual plans, meeting minutes), intended to study the FUG history and the present situation.
Ranking of households by wealth was carried out in Motipani; in the other three sites, such ranking was included in the FUG constitution. Knowledge about household wealth enabled the organization of interviews with groups of similar people as well as individual interviews with respondents from all wealth groups. Data were collected from January to May 2014. A qualitative data analysis was adopted, and narrative structuring and meaning interpretation were included [91]; quotations are used to illustrate examples of respondents’ insights in their own words.
The women in the four FUGs were willing to share their experiences, and in three of the groups they agreed to, and even demanded, that the paper reporting their experiences should specify the name of their group. These were Motipani Camari Khola (referred to as Motipani), Uchalni Dunga and Situm Kasari and Simsar Patle Suwara Jukepani (referred to as Situm Kasari). In one group, the key women involved expressed fear of reprisal from local men and demanded anonymity; this group is hence referred to as Mahila, meaning ‘women’ in Nepali.

2.4. Study Sites

The villages where the four FUGs had been established were scattered but all located in Kaski District, within one day’s transport from Pokhara, and all had bus service. Livelihood activities in the villages can be categorized as mainly rural and in three of the sites a large proportion of villagers, especially adult males, had left the area to pursue alternative work opportunities; the fourth site, Uchalni Dunga, which is located closest to Pokhara, experienced in-migration from more remote areas. Village inhabitants used firewood and timber from the forest, both for subsistence and commercial purposes; the exception was Uchalni Dunga where only subsistence utilization took place. Forest operational plans are needed to endorse any kind of forest utilization, but are generally perceived to be most important for commercial forest exploitation. Two of the four selected FUGs had been established within the last nineteen years, while two were established about twenty-eight years ago (Table 1). All had established or renewed the operational plan recently, meaning that women’s participation in the committee had had to be explicitly re-negotiated. Different paths towards the inclusion of women had been followed in each case and are explained below. Three of the four committees included Dalit members, and in these the members from the so-called “higher” castes expressed concerns about their inclusion. The study did not find any differences in women’s participation based exclusively on caste and consequently this topic is not given strong emphasis. Key data for the four cases are summarized in Table 1.
Mahila was registered as an FUG in 2006. The formation of the group was initiated by a very active young woman who took upon herself all the management tasks involved, to avoid, as she stated, being dependent on men. She received active support from her family and the District Forest Officer (DFO), and she gathered women to form an all-women committee because the DFO recommended it as the establishment of an exclusively female committee would strengthen the community’s claim on the (at that time quite degraded) forest as compared to claims made by already established neighbouring FUGs with mixed committees. The committee only included women from privileged castes. When this first chairwoman married and left the village men started to become involved in the committee. Though formally registered as an all-women committee, in practice, the committee in Mahila at the time of the study included two male advisors. The ambiguous status of the men allowed them to exercise considerable influence on decision making while not being legally responsible for the decisions. When we addressed questions to the women during group interviews, the male advisors would answer until we specifically requested answers from the women. When we asked whether an all-women committee was the best solution, women at first said yes, but when the male advisors expressed a preference for including 25% men, the women quickly agreed with them and did not wish to discuss this further. The Mahila forest provided valuable forest products, including timber.
Motipani was registered in 2003 with a committee including both women and men, and with an equal distribution of caste and ethnic background. The forest included quite valuable timber resources, and this attracted the community elite to the user group. In 2013, all seats were allocated to women to prevent conflicts between two male factions; this solution was proposed by the DFO. At the time of the research the former male chairperson and a few other men acted as advisors to the all-women committee, and some of the women members felt that pre-made decisions were presented to them by the men.
Situm Kasari was established in 1992 with a committee consisting entirely of men. As gender equality became an official national goal, women entered the committee and at the time of the study constituted about 50% of the members; the treasurer was a young Dalit woman, and a future all-woman committee was envisioned by several female and male committee members to follow recommendations made by the DFO. The treasurer was the only Dalit member of the committee. The forest included valuable products, including timber, and the FUG won a national award for fulfilling the objectives of community forestry in 2009.
The fourth FUG, Uchalni Dunga, was established in 1994. The forest was located close to Pokhara; it was very degraded and therefore provided only firewood for subsistence use and no commercial timber. In 2009 the composition of the committee was changed from mixed to women only, but after two years the change was reversed. The first change was explained by a combination of factors: the initial mixed committee was unable to reclaim loans provided by the FUG, forest protection was not enforced, and the male chairman was perceived as not being interested in FUG activities. The possibility of instituting an all-women committee was then introduced and supported by the DFO. The all-women committee was able to reclaim the outstanding loans but unable to dedicate the necessary time to the protection (patrolling) of the forests—an unpopular task that was generally not supported by men. The second mixed committee was predominantly composed of members from privileged castes and two Dalit members.

3. Results

3.1. The “Handclapping Approach” for the Selection of the Executive Committee Members

Under the influence of quotas, women’s descriptive participation in the community forestry committees examined in this study was high. In all cases, women constituted approximately the required proportion of committee members or more. However, the mandate given to representatives in the committees depends on how they were elected [92], and a rigorous and strong electoral mechanism is the main way in which an organization can ensure downward accountability [93]. The 2014 Guidelines for Community Forestry Development Programme require that selection of committee members be “based on general consensus”, and in three of the four cases examined this meant that a name was proposed to the general assembly, whereupon general handclapping confirmed the choice. “Handclapping approach”, in fact, was the term used by people to describe the “general consensus” prescribed by the Guidelines. In all three cases, the names proposed were decided overtly or covertly by a single person. In Uchalni Dunga, the male chairperson had a reputation for fairness. The handclapping approach there resulted in the selection of female and male committee members that the chairman considered to be actively working for the good of the forest. All of the women in the mixed committee in place during the time of the study and most of the women in the past all-women committee, however, were wives of men who had migrated for work, and they therefore found it difficult to allocate time to community forestry activities. In the two all-women committees in Mahila and Motipani, the hand-clapping approach legitimized the selection of women with very low bargaining power. This process, based on a handclap that follows the proposal of the names by the male elite, shows a selection process that does not allow (or very difficultly) the possibility of a denial of the names proposed by the male elite. According to The State of Gender Equality and Climate Change in Nepal 2021, the selection of women with less experience or confidence, deliberately chosen to fill the quota, is a strategy used by men to retain power over the CFUG. In Mahila, this was probably meant to reinforce the dependency of the women in the committee on the male de facto secretary, and in Motipani it aimed to undermine the committee’s success and pave the way for the return of the former male chairperson. At the time of the study, he was advising the all-women committee, which explicitly shared his strategy; this person had previously been accused of misappropriating FUG funds. Examples of women with low bargaining power included the chairperson in Mahila, a young single mother and therefore vulnerable in a patriarchal society that values seniority, and a young girl attending school six days a week in Pokhara and therefore not present in the community. One of the women elected for the committee in Motipani was not aware she was on the candidate list and did not attend the general assembly where she was elected. The absence of specific submissions to the electoral mechanism thus left the selection of committee members to the discretion of influential persons, by implication reducing the bargaining power of the electees.
The tole (hamlet) approach followed in the fourth case, in Situm Kasari, was more promising in terms of downward accountability. The general assembly selected an election committee that then organized meetings in each of the village hamlets (toles) to select a representative by consensus. The complete list was presented to the general assembly for approval. This approach still contains elements of the handclapping approach but because hamlets are more homogeneous in terms of class and caste or ethnicity, the tole approach may serve to encourage marginalized people to speak up [94] and is therefore less prone to being captured by the elite. The majority of the village appreciated the tole approach, but not the people from the tole where the Dalits lived. While FUG members from privileged castes expressed a need for an inclusive approach to community forest management, several Dalit members expressed a general lack of interest in the community forest. There may very well be a caste based conflict in the FUG, but as the research focused mainly on interactions in the committee, and as no such conflicts appeared to be felt there, the topic was not pursued further.

3.2. The Controversial Role of the State

The promotion of the inclusion of women in executive committees by forest authorities was found to be substantial. In Situm Kasari and Uchalni Dunga, the FUGs were guided by the DFO to comply with the rules and include 50% female members on the committee; in Mahila and Motipani, the recommendations of the DFO went further than the national requirements, indicating an apparent preference for all-women committees. None of the committee members in the four sites we investigated were, however, aware of the full content of the Community Forestry Guidelines. While the requirement to allocate a certain percentage of the forest area for protection activities was well known, conspicuously, requirements for equitable distribution of benefits and for allocating a percentage of the funds to programmes targeting women and minorities were not. The haste with which missions to communities were generally undertaken by forest authority representatives implied that limited and simple information was shared. Issues reported to be prioritized were forest conservation and the need for women’s representation in the executive committees. This focus on information about parameters that are relevant for the assessment of the forest authority representatives was also reported by Malla et al. [95] and demonstrates the latter’s upward accountability. Further, a focus on women’s descriptive rather than their substantive participation in community forestry decision-making raises the issue of whose agenda gender equality is perceived to be. Several Nepalese authors suggest that international development donors exercised strong influence when Nepal’s national objective of enhancing women’s participation in community forestry was formulated [57,96,97], but operated in the context of professionals who are not entirely prone to promoting knowledge practices that recognize and resist gender injustice [98].
The interaction of a female executive committee members and district forest officers demonstrates that there was an uneasy relationship between them. Female committee members rarely visited the District Forest Office in the city of Pokhara because of cultural behavioural norms involving social spatial segregation, but in one instance when the female secretary of Motipani did so, the forest officers with whom she communicated during the visit told her that it “would have been much easier if you hadn’t been in the executive committee”, that it was much easier for them to deal with men rather than women, and that permission to cut timber was delayed because women tended to “leak information”. The latter comment was interpreted by the woman concerned to mean that they hesitated to demand the usual bribes from her, being a woman, out of fear that she might share the occurrence publicly and compromise the forest officers’ reputation. This incident confirms that forest authorities’ overall intents in gender equality do not easily translate into a coherent behaviour towards women, cultural acceptance and, consequently, women’s substantial participation, as indicated by Staddon. [98]. Researchers and experts, after many years of community forestry implementation, are still calling for a clearly defined mandate for local governments and forest bureaucracy to adopt more effective strategies for the promotion of women inclusion and participation, through the enforcement of affirmative policies in practice, adopting intersectional approaches to include the most excluded categories, and introducing facilitations to solve the daily constraints preventing women from the possibility to participate in the FUG’s management [28].

3.3. Women’s Participation in Community Forestry Decision-Making

Most of the female members of the four executive committees participated passively or nominally, following Agarwal’s typology [31]. There were only few exceptions to this pattern, even in the two all-women committees where women were supposed to make all the decisions. Committee meetings in Mahila were led by the male de facto secretary who suggested specific decisions to be made to the female members. During committee meetings, the men talked while the women sat in a group somewhat removed from the men, without providing input into discussions and without asking questions. The woman chairperson did not dare oppose the male de facto secretary when he insisted that he would communicate with the DFO, and she even signed blank letters for the purpose.
In the previous mixed committee in Motipani, women were generally informed of decisions after they had been made, and details about expenditures were never presented in meetings. The then female secretary never saw the accounts. When an all-women committee was elected, the male advisors to the committee, including the former chairperson, dominated the meetings and decisions-making; similar circumstances were also reported by Wocan [99]. They were only challenged by the female secretary. When a meeting was observed, it was quite indicative of the situation that the female members swept the floor before the meeting, and when the male advisors arrived all the women except the female secretary, sat down at such a distance from them that they could hardly hear what was being talked about. The female secretary, on the other hand, sat down in front of the men, leading the discussion and challenging the men’s arguments, demonstrating active and interactive participation.
Women’s participation in the mixed committees differed markedly between the two cases investigated in the study. Three of the five women in the mixed committee in Situm Kasari participated in the meetings but never put forward an opinion or an idea because, in the words of one of them, “women don’t have the ability to speak in public, even to say their name”. The women generally played more active roles in the hamlets, which offer a more informal setting [100]. Their participation ranged from passive to activity-specific when they distributed and recollected FUG loans to the neediest. The fourth female member only participated nominally. She was replaced in meetings by her husband, a former committee member who openly expressed the opinion that women were only included in the committee to satisfy the formal requirements. The fifth female member, the treasurer, participated actively and interactively in the meetings. She raised issues and offered suggestions in relation to the implementation of training activities and the organization of field trips. Her status as a member of the disadvantaged Dalit caste and her lack of bookkeeping skills gave her a somewhat tokenistic status in the eyes of some of the other committee members, but she never experienced outright discrimination. Her active participation in FUG activities also outside meetings was indisputable.
Female members in the second mixed committee, in Uchalni Dunga, generally did not participate in committee meetings. As wives of men who had migrated for work, the reason provided was household chores. When women did attend, their active participation was not encouraged. A meeting was observed where the female treasurer arrived late; upon her arrival she was not admitted into the circle of men while several men who arrived both before and after her were included. In this second mixed committee, the female members did not, as in Situm Kasari, participate actively outside the space provided by the formal committee meetings. Dissuasion from active and substantive women’s participation can take different forms, intersecting the multiplicity of identities characterizing women, as with any individual [101].

3.4. The “Proper” Conduct of Women and Men

Widespread internalization of patriarchal norms is generally observed in Nepalese society (Chetri 2008), and women’s and men’s subjectivities [11] are to a large degree constituted on the basis of these. The prevalent cultural norms seemed to limit women’s participation in community forestry decision-making in several ways, as both women and men tended to follow them. The female committee members in Situm Kasari who questioned women’s abilities to provide input to discussions related to the community forest echoed beliefs concerning behavioural norms widely held among the people living in the four sites examined in the study. Both women and men believed that men should make the decisions on community forestry management because they, as opposed to the women, were “able” and “had the right” to speak and make proposals. This belief may explain the general passivity of women during executive committee meetings.
The women in all the study sites were, as is the norm in Nepal [35], responsible for household chores such as cooking, cleaning and child care as well as a large share of the agricultural work [35,59]. This gender division of labour meant that it was difficult for most women to participate in committee meetings, and this was particularly pronounced in Uchalni Dunga, where the forest was perceived to yield little economic output and many men had migrated for work. In the words of the former female chairperson of the all-women committee in Uchalni Dunga FUG: “I couldn’t be chairperson anymore because of lack of time because I had to work in the house, my husband was working outside the village, I had to cook, take care of children, and so on. When you are in the executive committee you are not paid, you need to have your own income, independent from the user group, in order to support yourself and to be able to work for free in the executive committee”. It was generally held that women should spend time on committee work only if this did not interfere with their household duties. From most women’s and men’s perspective, the significance of women’s involvement in the executive committee seemed to be exclusively linked with fulfilling the legal requirements.
The segregation of physical space was found to be strongly interwoven with normatively acceptable behaviour for women. As with Nepal generally [59], in all the four sites women were perceived as naturally belonging to the domestic sphere while men were seen as the relevant actors in the public sphere. This resulted in tensions associated with attendance to committee meetings, as stated by a woman in the Uchalni Dunga FUG: “I’m afraid to be judged by the community as a woman that contravenes the proper role of women in the community, moving about here and there outside the household, taking time from household activities”. Further, in combination with women’s low level of self-esteem (Denholm 1993), it meant that women found it difficult to engage with forest authorities, as illustrated by the words of a former female committee member from the Motipani FUG: “Women are not expected nor allowed to visit public offices in the city; if they go to the offices, they cannot speak, they do not know what to say, and if the DFO employees tell them something, women forget it very easily”. The interlinked concepts of gendered behavioural norms, division of labour and segregation of spaces may thus largely explain the observed participation of women in the executive committees of the four FUGs. However, a few occurrences demonstrate that affirmative actions in community forestry executive committees do provide opportunities for renegotiation of the norms.

3.5. Challenging Patriarchal Norms

Awareness of oppression, injustice and deprivation of rights is generally considered to be a precondition for change [102]. Three instances observed during the fieldwork for the study showed what Parpat [103] calls the slow incremental process of women’s infiltration of a context previously dominated by the male elite. The first instance was when an old Dalit woman in Motipani, a member of the committee, expressed frank insights into how male committee members manipulated and dominated women. She demonstrated clear awareness of the injustices committed. She offered these insights far from her house and with no witnesses other than the researchers. In a second conversation with the woman three months later, in front of her house and in the presence of her husband, she expressed very different opinions, clearly not wanting to openly challenge male leaders. The individual costs of contesting prevalent norms would likely be very high and she preferred to conform.
The second instance took place in Mahila and involved the apparently weak chairperson confronting the male de facto secretary when it was discovered that he had illicitly allowed relatives to harvest timber from the community forest. Guards patrolling the forest reported the incident to the chairperson who immediately gathered all committee members and confronted the de facto secretary, severely damaging his reputation in the community. Although not all the other committee members supported her, the fact that she convincingly challenged the man’s despotic behaviour greatly strengthened her self-esteem and bargaining power.
The third instance involved the female secretary of Motipani. The committee had applied for permission from the DFO to cut timber; the revenues would be used to finalize electrification of the community and, as such, the activity fell within the social mandate of the FUG and was also within the approved forest operational plan. The process was prolonged because of committee members’ inexperience as to the formal requirements and because the male advisor secretly intervened by informing the DFO that illegal timber harvesting had been carried out in the FUG. The female secretary confronted the challenges by first calling a committee meeting and thereafter going to the DFO premises and remaining there until all misunderstandings had been cleared up and permission was given. The action demanded great persistence and awareness of her authority.
These three incidents show that as women became members and leaders of the executive committees, they gained the ability to recognize oppression and injustice, to challenge it and to assume leadership when needed. These episodes are evidence of the importance, within a reservation policy context and a critical mass discourse, of the incidental presence of critical actors [17], of performing critical acts [25] of contesting existing cultural patriarchal norms, triggering social transformation and thus shifting women’s representation from descriptive to substantive. A shared characteristic of two of the women who contested the patriarchal norms was that they had negotiated an uncommon position in their family. In contrast with caste hierarchies, power relations and dominance at the family level can be easier and faster to transform [20]. The husband of the secretary in Motipani and the parents of the young Dalit secretary in Situm Kasari openly supported their pursuit of activities outside traditional gender stereotypes. This is perhaps less uncommon for young women, who might however still revert to a traditional role after marriage, as did the founding chairperson of Mahila FUG, while for older women it is very unusual. The husband of the Motipani secretary explained the social repercussions of contestation: “A big problem for women’s participation in society is the fact that society thinks that women who go out of the house for social activities are bad women. First because they don’t fulfil their household duties, and second because there are many bad men around that might engage in violence, including sexual violence, against women. Given this situation, a man who allows his wife to go around alone, to deal with other men, or to sleep in the city (as when she is required to go to the DFO office) is looked upon very badly by the rest of the society. When I let my wife go out of the house for matters related to the FUG I am also looked upon very badly by the other families. Men are not supposed to let women, their wives or daughters, go about freely”.

4. Discussion and Conclusions

4.1. The Evidences Collected

What we have observed in the present article is an uneasy relationship between central and local public images of women as well as rural women’s differential abilities to challenge the prevalent male dominance. Women numeral representation in the executive committees was found to be high; these data, however, were often achieved through a process of selection/election that was not transparent, and that was often managed by the male local elite. A high representation of women in the ECs was pursued by male local elite in order to satisfy the DFOs’ evaluation criteria. Local forest authorities were found to play a twofold role; besides promoting women descriptive representation, they were also hindering women’s possibility to influence decision making processes, relegating most of them to a mere passive or nominal participation. The low level of activeness or influence on decision making processes was often motivated by the need to conform to those cultural norms relegating women to the household realm, leaving no time for extra activities. Three notable cases were observed where women, partially as an effect of their inclusion through affirmative policies, took action against what they considered unjust, contesting those patriarchal norms that, although nominally involved in the ECs, were excluding them from decision making and power.

4.2. The FPE Perspective

Adopting the FPE lens, three elements seem relevant when considering the Nepalese experience of community forestry in relation to affirmative policies. First, there is the idea of exploiting women’s participation, in ideological terms, in order to legitimize the continuation of community forestry programmes vis-à-vis international funders. Second, we have to consider the issue of women’s access to resources in the Global South with reference not only to physical resources but also to immaterial resources. Lastly, FPE suggests that women are automatically connected to caring for Nature, but this study shows that the patriarchal and caste-based structure of the society have deprived women of their power over forests management.
Affirmative policies have been adopted by several governments in the Global South in response to funders, both public and private, from the Global North calling for women’s inclusion in decision-making processes [15]. The simple fact of adopting quotas and other prescriptions is nevertheless not enough to cast aside centuries of male dominance and the inherited patriarchal culture [28]. Considering the evidence collected during the research in Nepal, we suggest that such palliative solutions, in this case to include women in FUG committees, can be seen as a new, more subtle, form of women’s exploitation. Involving women in the committees does not aim to engage them or give them more voice, on the contrary, it is a way to obtain donors’ money from their marginalization.
Access to resources is not only about food, water, wood, and so on: knowledge, rights and power are critical resources too [72]. Women in Nepal are prevented from having access to effective control over natural resources by having no voice over community forestry management. Effective affirmative policies seem to be crucial for achieving social justice in resources access, especially when we consider immaterial resources, including power and knowledge. Knowledge and domination legitimized by knowledge are thus particularly relevant when trying to understand if and how women are actually able to manage local physical resources and have the right to do so.
The inherent connection that women have with Nature, together with women’s daily working relationship with natural elements for the procurement of water, wood, fodder and food from forests, can lead us to infer that women have deep knowledge of the laws of Nature and forest management [68]; but this knowledge is neither considered nor used, and is even ridiculed. Conversely the attention of men, and that of women themselves, is focused on women’s lack of knowledge in terms of accounting, book-keeping and public speaking skills—skills that women are prevented from acquiring due to restrictions on their right to a formal education—which in turn, by supporting the traditional patriarchal norms, also deprives them of access to power. Further, when women are somehow involved, the public attention is on how women’s participation in the FUGs can benefit the forests rather than how community forestry can contribute to political empowerment of women [28].
The general stand of feminism, including FPE, is that women are able, usually more able then men, to take care of life, Nature and livelihoods. However, according to the evidence provided by Marléne Buchy and Suman Subba [9] as well as Resurrección et al. [8], the success of Nepal’s community forestry programme might actually be caused or facilitated by the exclusion of women, as well as of people from disadvantaged castes and the poor. Those who are most dependent on common forests and natural resources for their livelihood are those who have been deprived of power over their management. We can say that we do not know what the outcome would be if women were given power over the forest, whether there would be more or less respect for the forest as a result.

4.3. Remarks on Critical Mass Theory

Considering the critical actor theory proposed by Childs and Krook [17], the three related characteristics were found to be present in the examples examined in this study. According to the theory, a critical actor operates individually or as a group, can fail or be successful in promoting women’s interests and can be male or female. What is relevant, is the intention to change the situation, focusing more on the effort to initiate change instead of on the concrete results of her/his/their action.
In particular, it seems possible to see as critical actors the young woman in Mahila, as well as the one in Motipani, challenging the DFO to obtain the right to be listened to. As stated earlier, in this case the secretary, participating actively and interactively in the meetings, raised issues and offered suggestions in relation to the implementation of training activities and the organization of field trips. Her status as a Dalit and her lack of bookkeeping skills gave her a somewhat tokenistic status but she never experienced outright discrimination. Another example of critical action is the woman in Mahila who dared to denounce the man who committed an offence against the community. It is also important to underscore the courage and critical stance (in a positive sense) of the man supporting his wife, despite public condemnation.
The critical actor perspective seems to be closer to the FPE approach, because of its capacity to provide scope for women’s struggle for self-determination, as well as for broader societal recognition of women’s contribution to a better livelihood [74]. Reducing the discourse to a percentage of women in the committees seems to be reductive and does not account for the value of individuals with a special commitment to social justice, gender balance and social as well as environmentally sustainable forestry management.

4.4. Women in Nepal’s Community Forestry

The introduction of reservations for women in Nepal’s community forestry committees brings about more nominal than substantial changes to women’s participation in decision-making, yet they can be a way to enhance their voice and influence. A combination of the enhanced focus on women’s nominal participation by authorities and local elites, both of which are often exclusively male, and the almost ubiquitous internalization of patriarchal norms by women, serve to further subdue women, as their presence in committees is enforced yet blatantly ignored. The mere proportion of women in the committees did not seem to guarantee their active involvement. The hand-clapping approach to selections of committee members served to reinforce this involvement of women as puppets controlled by influential males, and the elimination of the need for general assembly members to declare their votes publicly could contribute to a less biased procedure.
The lack of differentiation between nominal and substantive participation is interpreted to reflect a mixture of external demands, especially from international funders, and resistance to changes in cultural norms. The national adoption of the gender equality discourse does mean that women’s claims cannot be entirely ignored, yet they may be challenged and are only rarely supported. The general upward accountability of local forest officers implies that changes in the way women participate are more likely if indicators reflect meaningful rather than nominal participation (e.g., substantive participation based on individual responses and qualitative analyses of the impact of decisions).

4.5. Conclusions

The study found examples of extraordinary women who successfully contested traditional gender roles and gender injustice. At least one of them acted from a progressive and non-patriarchal familial background, emphasizing the need to challenge cultural norms in the private as well as the public sphere. These contesters were, however, a small minority and some of them could have participated in the forest committee even in the absence of the reservation policy. Yet the enhanced exposure of female committee members to the discrepancy between the gender equality discourse introduced in community forestry and persistent male domination seems to be slowly bringing about an enhanced awareness of male suppression, an awareness that is a prerequisite for contestation. In that respect, reservation for women serves its intended purpose, creating the condition for some of them to perform as critical actors, successfully contesting traditional gender roles and gender injustice, negotiating for them and for the other women, a more effective and meaningful participation in the management of Community Forests. The issue of women’s substantive representation in political arenas deserves to be studied in much greater depth, focusing especially on the Global South. A second aspect not analysed in detail, though mentioned, in this article is the intersectionality of gender and race/caste. Since overcoming cultural and internalized imaginary barriers to gender equality is considered crucial, it is highly advisable to take into consideration the multiple level of marginalization, domination and exclusion from political power. With this contribution, we have sought to open a window on the efforts made in Nepalese society to enforce women’s participation in forestry management, while also showing that there is still a long way to go.

Author Contributions

Conceptualization, C.M. and A.P.; methodology, C.M.; investigation, C.M.; writing—original draft preparation, C.M. and A.P.; writing—review and editing, C.M. and A.P.; supervision, C.M. All authors have read and agreed to the published version of the manuscript.


This research received no external funding.

Institutional Review Board Statement

Not applicable, we have conducted an ethnographic research; humans have taken part as subjects and not object of the research.

Informed Consent Statement

Informed consent was requested to all subjects involved in the study. People belonging to three of the four FUGs involved in the research gave their consent, while women EC members of the fourth FUG requeste not to state the name of the FUG because of fear of retaliation. The name of this fourth FUG was protected and substituted with Mahila, meaning “women” in Nepali.

Data Availability Statement

Data are retained by authors.


1. Helle Overgard Larsen: for the thoughtful support during the elaboration of this research in Copenhagen and in Nepal. 2. Nirajan Kadkha for his long lasting and deep friendship and for the support in understanding Nepali culture and collecting data. 3. The wonderful women of Nepal that opened their houses to me and to my assistants.

Conflicts of Interest

The authors declare no conflict of interest.


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Table 1. Details of Forest User Groups studied in Kaski District.
Table 1. Details of Forest User Groups studied in Kaski District.
FUG NameMahila *MotipaniSitum KasariUchalni Dunga
- ward 7
Bahrat Pokhari
- ward 9
- wards 4 and 9
Year established2006200319921994
No. of committee members
(de facto)
9 (7)91313
Female committee members
(de facto)
9 (7)956
male committee members
(de facto)
0 (2)087
Chairperson’s sexFemaleFemaleMaleMale
Treasurer’s sexFemaleFemaleFemaleFemale
Secretary’s sexMaleFemaleMaleMale
No. of FUG members64132179160
Forest area, ha11915013661
Fund balance 2013,
rupees **
Commercial timberYesYesYesNo
* Key women in the group wished to remain anonymous and the name used is a pseudonym. ** Chhetri et al. (2012) reported an average balance of 23,790 rupees per FUG from 41 FUGs in Gorkha District with no commercial timber harvest.
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Murer, C.; Piccoli, A. Affirmative Policy in Nepal’s Community Forestry: Does it Make a Difference in Terms of Social Sustainability? Sustainability 2022, 14, 5598.

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Murer C, Piccoli A. Affirmative Policy in Nepal’s Community Forestry: Does it Make a Difference in Terms of Social Sustainability? Sustainability. 2022; 14(9):5598.

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Murer, Carlo, and Alessandra Piccoli. 2022. "Affirmative Policy in Nepal’s Community Forestry: Does it Make a Difference in Terms of Social Sustainability?" Sustainability 14, no. 9: 5598.

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