Where are the women of the forest? | The Daily Star
12:00 AM, March 29, 2019 / LAST MODIFIED: 11:06 AM, March 30, 2019

Where are the women of the forest?

I would not know it then, but it would be a twelve-hour stretch before I would get the chance to interact with another woman, as I made my way from Dhaka to Tanguar Haor. In those hours, journeying to the corner of Sunamganj to watch wildlife conservationists at work, I met, interacted with and received advice from only men. Why so? Where were the women? 

I would be hard-pressed to find an answer to this question immediately. But, as I stepped down from the boat, on the banks of a beel in Tanguar, I was greeted by two aspiring and young female wildlife conservationists, one of them now a biodiversity officer with the Bangladesh Forest Department. The other is an official working with the International Union for Conservation of Nature, Bangladesh (IUCN).

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Talking to these two ladies and their male colleagues, over the course of the trip in Sunamganj, further confirmed my misgivings about the gaping gender gap that exists in the field of nature and wildlife conservation.

Days in the field are not easy. The wildlife conservationists—seven men and the two women—all had their tents pitched on a small mound in the haor. Their days would begin at the break of dawn and continue through midnight. They would spend hours stooped low on a small country boat in the middle of the haor at night to guard the mist-nets they had been set up for the ducks. They were tagging the wild ducks with solar power tags to understand their role in wildlife conservation (This project was written about in the previous issue of Star Weekend).

In between walking through the expansive haor grassland and midnight pee breaks, I caught up with Zohora Mila and Zenifar Azmiri to understand their take on the struggles of a woman working in wildlife conservation.

Both of them started their careers in wildlife conservation while in the final years of their university. Both graduated from zoology department of the Jahangirnagar University.

“My parents were initially bothered by the idea of me going to the field and spending so much time alone and in the vicinity of many male colleagues,” says Mila, who works at the forest department.

Mila considers herself lucky that none of her male colleagues ever made her feel unsafe when she travelled with them to remote parts of Bangladesh.

The concerns plaguing women in the field are manifold. One of the more crucial problems of female wildlife conservationists on the field happen to be in relation to menstrual health.

“The first time I went to the field and got my period, I was too scared to even tell anyone for fear they would say I was unfit to do hard work. There is also the taboo on talking about your period with men in our country. It is hush hush… nobody talks about it.

“You know what I did with my used sanitary napkins during that field trip? As there was no place to dispose of the waste without other people knowing (we were on a camping trip in the middle of Baikka Beel), I wrapped up all the waste in four polythene bags and then again in old newspaper and brought it all the way back to Dhaka. I know it is horrible and extremely unhygienic to do this, but I had no other way,” says Mila.

Women who work on the field do not find themselves in compromising situations only in regard to their menstrual health, they also suffer when it comes to their daily sanitation needs.

“When we go to the workstation which could be either a grassland or a mudflat or some other open expanse, we can only relieve ourselves after going back to the campsite or to the resthouse,” says Zenifar, who works with IUCN.

“I have now made peace with the fact and I do not feel shy telling my male colleagues that I need to use the toilet. I just ask them to look away so that I can find a secluded spot in the field to pee!” adds Zenifar.

Despite all these issues, both Zenifar and Mila love their work and say they cannot wait to get back in the field the moment they return to Dhaka.

“I love being out here. The work I do, makes me feel empowered and gives me the satisfaction of doing meaningful work,” says Mila.

For both wildlife biologists, their work in the field—with its many challenges—has proven to be very rewarding. But both lamented the lack of more women in this line of work.

In the Bangladesh Forest Department, where Mila works, less than 10 percent of the workforce comprises women.

Dr Abu Naser Mohsin Hossain, assistant conservator of forest, also agrees that the gender gap is a unfortunate reality in the Bangladesh Forest Department and blames it on a number of factors.

For most openings in the forest department, the authorities have a specific set of recommendations for recruits. They have a requirement of educational background from forestry. But the subject is only offered by a limited few universities.

“In Bangladesh there are a total of three public universities that offer forestry as a course—Chattogram University, Khulna University and Shahjalal University—even here you will see, the percentage of male to female students is much the same as the number of women who actually get into the forest department workforce: i.e. less than 10 percent,” says Abu Naser.

The process of recruitment is completed through the Public Service Commission's BCS examinations for senior officer posts. The forest department does not have a role to play in the selection of possible recruits. Now the question is where does the fault lie? Why aren't enough female employees joining the workforce and will this gap continue to widen?

Dr Abu Naser recommends that the PSC should ensure or, at the very least, make way for more female employees to apply. He also laments traditional gender norms which have perpetrated the myth that women cannot work in the field or take up challenging roles such as those of forest guards or even spending time in the field.

But the truth is women have traditionally been involved in work that required physical labour—especially in Bangladesh, where many women contribute to agricultural production.

The low number of women in the Bangladesh Forest Department and in the field of nature conservation overall also limits the outcome of many projects that are implemented. For example, the Bangladesh Forest Department with its partner organisations is taking up many projects which include afforestation and reforestation in the rural areas. And one of the largest stakeholders in such projects are the community's women. Wouldn't it make more sense to engage more women in decision-making and in communication roles of the forest department?

Dr Abu Naser agrees about the need to include more women officials, “Often, when we try to talk to village women, they feel shy or hesitant to talk to us and I am sure if a woman forest official was relaying the same message to them then it would be much more approachable to the stakeholders.”

Extrapolating from that idea, it only makes sense to engage more women in roles of decision-making and communication, especially when it comes to issues of the natural environment. Or else how will the next generation of Jane Goodalls, or Diane Fosseys be born and nurtured? The ones who leave lasting changes, debunking myths of the wild and the ones who also philosophise?

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