Mountain development

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There is an urgent need to foster gender equity and equality in mountain development by encouraging women’s involvement in decision-making and by recognizing the crucial role women play as guardians of local resources and knowledge.

The Gender Initiative of the Mountain Partnership sees gender as a cross-cutting concern and will work to ensure that gender equity is mainstreamed in mountain development policy and action.


Submitted on behalf of the Mountain Partnership Gender Initiative


Gender has been identified by members of the Mountain Partnership as one of its thematic initiatives in recognition that a crucial prerequisite for sustainable development is to achieve equal rights, responsibilities and opportunities for women and men. The Gender Initiative of the Mountain Partnership has thus been established to promote awareness and activities to mainstream gender in all partnership activities and initiatives, in order to foster equality and thus make development efforts more sustainable. This brief outlines reasons why gender issues are particularly relevant to mountain development, and what the Gender Initiative hopes to achieve.

The status of mountain women

Women are vital to the sustainability of mountain communities and play a prominent role in agricultural production, resource management and the household. Yet little information exists about the status of women and gender relations in mountain regions. Studies about women typically focus on those in lowland and urban environments, and are absent from most economic and social histories of mountain regions, which are largely written by men.

It is impossible to describe gender relations in all mountain areas of the world without further research on this theme. Every region has its own distinct cultural and environmental characteristics, and yet extensive research is not yet available for most mountain regions of the world, though some work has been completed in the European Alps, Andes and the Hindu Kush-Himalayan region. Further research is urgently needed in all mountain areas of the world.

Inaccessibility is perhaps the greatest influence shaping the lives of mountain inhabitants. And while mountain women face many of the same challenges as women throughout the developing world, the work of women in mountain regions is intensified by altitude, steep terrain and isolation. In addition, many mountain peoples are of indigenous groups that face numerous forms of discrimination and marginalization.

Many women in mountain regions have more freedom of movement, independence in decision-making and higher status than women in lowland areas. This may be due to less rigid religious beliefs, such as those found in indigenous systems, and because of their vital contribution in eking out a living in a harsh mountain environment.

But this higher status is at risk. Whereas inaccessibility has helped to preserve many languages and cultural traditions in mountain regions, mainstream pressures to adopt national cultures now threaten to undermine the central role of women by relegating them to the home and to domestic chores.

Women carry a much heavier workload than men in mountain regions. While women share agricultural and livestock tasks fairly evenly with men, they often have the additional tedious and strenuous work of collecting water, fuelwood and fodder as well as processing food, cooking, and caring for children and the elderly.

But the workload of mountain women is intensified by a number of factors in mountainous regions, including a limited access to resources, an outmigration of men who seek work in lowland areas and environmental degradation. In most cases, mountain women also lack economic independence and have only limited access to markets, health care and education.

The survival of mountain communities requires the absence of men for trading and herding purposes. During these periods, women maintain the farm and household and participate in small trade and income-earning activities. Increasingly, however, the outmigration of men to lowland and urban centres for cash wages leaves women as heads of the household for long periods with only limited access to credit, agricultural extension, and other services.

Who has access and control of resources?

Women seldom hold ownership and tenure rights to land, trees, water and other natural resources. While women contribute most of the labour for agriculture, they rarely have formal control of land or ownership of animals. Mountain women's lack of control over productive resources means they cannot raise collateral for bank loans, and hampers efforts to improve or expand their farm activities and earn cash incomes. Marketing of products is also constrained by women’s lack of bargaining skills, exploitation by middlemen, and distance to marketing centres.

Traditionally, most extension services have been devoted to farmers who own land and who are able to obtain credit and invest it in inputs and technological innovations. Since women often lack access to land or other collateral, extension services bypass women. Cultural barriers are important as well – in many societies male extension agents find it difficult to talk with women farmers, and women are discouraged from this work as it requires time away from the family, and traveling to remote areas. This marginalizes the role of women in agricultural production systems by emphasizing high-yielding crop varieties to which women have little access. This also undermines the traditional knowledge women possess about agriculture and resource management which is often extensive, and differs from that of men – a fact that is often overlooked in mountain development projects. Women’s knowledge is a valuable resource on which to build strategies for more sustainable livelihoods.

Women are forced to travel greater distances to collect fuel and fodder as a result of diminishing forestry resources and a declining agricultural base. Environmental degradation in mountain regions also increases the erosion of topsoil, leading to crop failure. The result is growing outmigration, food deficits and incidences of trafficking of mountain women into lowland and urban centres.

Gender, public services and politics

While the number of girls attending school in mountain areas is increasing, their enrolment is considerably lower than of boys. But the enrolment of girls in school does not guarantee their attendance. Frequently, the girls’ mothers, who require their help for childcare and domestic chores, are forced to take them out of school.

Health remains a neglected issue in mountain development. While hospitals are accessible in some areas, mountain women generally have less access to medical care, family planning or female doctors.

In the cold climate of high altitude regions, the body metabolizes food faster, so people need higher-calorie diets. Since females often have less access to household resources, women and girls are at greater risk of hunger and poor nutrition.

Most mountain communities lack access to adequate water supplies and proper sanitation facilities, raising the risk of sanitation-related illness. Women, as the primary water carriers and users are in constant contact with polluted water, increasing their vulnerability. Sanitation is also an issue in many mountain schools where there are often no separate toilets for boys and girls; in some cases, this is the reason girls are not sent to school.

Throughout the developing world, women are prevented from full participation in politics because of their lack of education in addition to their heavy workload. However, the number of women voting and taking up community leadership roles in mountain regions is increasing. Still gender biases and other barriers prevent their full participation in decision making in matters that extend beyond the household.

Many women in mountain regions lack self-confidence and feel less important than men. Factors that influence the self-esteem of mountain women include culture, education, interaction with others outside the community and the ability to earn an income, among others. Even in Tibet, where women are commonly described as free spirited and strong willed, women have a lower self-image of themselves than do men.

While government interventions to help rural women are found in many mountain areas, there are significant gaps between the policy goals and local realities. Policies designed outside the community are inappropriate for the local context and many ignore the daily activities of men and women. Sometimes women are too busy to take advantage of health and education services. Frequently, policy directives come without funds, so they become little more than expressions of intent noted on official documents.

The Gender Initiative

Given the importance of gender to mountain development and the need for capacity building for gender awareness and skills, this Initiative will advocate for and support mechanisms of integrating gender throughout the umbrella of the Mountain Partnership, though engagement with members of the other Initiatives. . The Gender Initiative of the Mountain Partnership sees gender as a cross-cutting concern and will work to ensure that gender equity is mainstreamed in mountain development policy and action. The Gender Initiative aims to enhance the understanding of mountain specific gender issues and to further develop the competence, methods and tools for gender mainstreaming and women’s empowerment in mountain areas. This will be accomplished through the exchange of information and experience, and through the provision of advisory support for activities that have a gender-sensitive approach, on a demand basis. Organizations and individuals with interest in gender issues in mountain regions are welcome to join us.

Please visit [www.mountainpartnership/initiatives/gender.html] for more information.

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