Gender Transformative Approaches for Advancing Gender Equality in Coral Reef Social-ecological Systems

An Excerpt from the Document:



CORAL reefs are among the most biodiverse ecosystems globally, and they support the provision of goods and services for approximately 500 million people in coastal communities (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2019). Yet, climate change threatens the sustainability of coral reefs. Increased ocean temperatures mean coral bleaching and mortality events are becoming more widespread (Wilkinson 2000; Speers et al. 2016). These changes are modifying food systems and decreasing fisheries productivity (Rogers et al. 2018), increasing the vulnerability of millions of people dependent on reefs for their livelihoods (Hoegh-Guldberg et al. 2019).

Dying fish in Indonesia. Photo by Josh Estey / CARE

Within coral reef systems, the effects of social and ecological change are inequitably distributed (de la Torre-Castro et al. 2017; Lau et al. 2021a). Gender, the social meaning and expectations regarding what it is to be a woman or man, shapes how individuals experience opportunities and outcomes within social-ecological systems (Resurrección & Elmhirst 2008; Nightingale 2016). Women tend to face greater constraints than men in their capacities to respond to social-ecological change; men tend to have greater access to and control over assets (i.e., natural resources, income or technology) meaning they are generally better positioned to cope and recover from such change (Cohen et al. 2016; Locke et al. 2017). Moreover, in cases where social-ecological change has created food or economic insecurity, men are more likely to migrate to urban areas to find work, leaving women to bear the brunt of food provisioning, reproductive labour and experience the impacts of poverty more intensely (Rao et al. 2021).

Gender also shapes how people experience and engage with programmes and policies seeking to assist communities overcome social-ecological disturbance. In many cases, men are more able than women to access information and support, have greater flexibility to participate in alternative or adapted livelihoods, and greater autonomy in making strategic life decisions (Locke et al. 2014; Cohen et al. 2016; Lawless et al. 2019). To ensure both effective and equitable outcomes, it is critical that environmental development interventions consider, and work to address these inequities. Yet, analysis of gender approaches used by interventions within coastal social-ecological systems suggest that current efforts are falling short of catalyzing needed progress toward gender equality (Stacey et al. 2019; Lawless et al. 2021; Mangubhai & Lawless 2021).

How environmental interventions interact with gender can be situated along a spectrum from those that seek to ‘reach’, ‘benefit’ or ‘empower’ women and men (Johnson et al. 2018),  to those that actively seek to ‘transform’ gender inequalities (Kleiber et al. 2019) (Figure 1)1. Research has shown that the majority of environmental interventions seek to ‘reach’ or ‘benefit’ participants (Danielsen et al. 2018; Mangubhai & Lawless 2021). ‘Reach’ approaches tend to focus on ensuring women are included in interventions, for example, equal numbers of women and men participating in activities or projects. ‘Benefit’ approaches focus on advancing individual access to resources, for example, as a means to increase productivity or income generation (Johnson et al. 2018; Kleiber et al. 2019). While these are important steps, these actions alone are unlikely to generate the profound gender and social change needed to drive equitable outcomes. Further along this spectrum, yet far less evident in environmental and conservation practice, are approaches that seek to ‘empower’ individuals. Essentially, these approaches focus on strengthening agency through expanding strategic freedoms or life choices, ultimately enhancing individual ability to make and act on decisions. Given women tend to have relatively less agency than men (Kabeer 1999; Muñoz Boudet et al. 2013), there is a tendency for ‘empower’ approaches to primarily focus on women.

Gender transformative approaches (GTAs) are considered the frontier of gender best practice. GTAs seek to surface and rebalance unequal norms, power relations and structures toward those that are considered gender equal (expanded in Section 2) (Wong et al. 2019; McDougall et al. 2020). They are distinct from approaches that only seek to address the symptoms of gender inequality (i.e., ‘reach’, ‘benefit’ or ‘empower’ approaches). GTAs are more ambitious and are designed to tackle the root causes of inequality (McDougall et al. 2020) and thus realize more transformative and longlasting progress towards gender equality across a range of scales. While the use of GTAs is emerging in environmental sectors, and specifically in food systems discourse, to date, there has been little guidance for their application in coral reef social-ecological systems.

A recent literature review (Lau & Ruano-Chamorro 2021) found that although attention to gender and fisheries, and marine environments is increasing (Harper et al. 2013, 2020; Gopal et al. 2014; Kleiber 2014; Frangoudes & Gerrard 2018; Frangoudes et al. 2019), studies of gender are more nascent in tropical seascapes (de la Torre-Castro et al. 2017; de la Torre-Castro 2019), and gender transformative approaches are rarely applied. There is thus considerable scope to enhance gender equality outcomes by elucidating what applying a GTA entails in this context.


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