The Hidden side of Group Behaviour: A Gender Analysis of Community Forestry in South Asia

Abstract: The paper is based largely on the field visits and interviews the author undertook during 1998-99 in 87 community forestry sites across five states of India (Gujarat, Karnataka. Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and the Uttar Pradesh hills) and two districts (Kaski and Dang) of Nepal. Issues such as the deliberate exclusion or margilisation of women from taking part of socially relevant activities that lay the foundation to the progression of developement are closely analysed from a geender studies perspective. The social and personal status of a woman and how it affects her position in the contemporary world in terms of taking part in collective activities are also discussed in the paper.

Keywords: Community Forestry Groups (CFGs), Executive Committee (EC), Joint Forest Management (JFM), Forest User Group (FUG), Gender-progressive NGOs, benefit sharing


Community forestry groups, managing State or community-owned forests, represent one of the most rapidly growing forms of collective action developing world. They thus provide an especially useful study in how groups function. The South Asian experience illuminates how such groups ostensibly set up to operate on principles of cooperation, and meant to involve and benefit all members of the rural community, often effectively exclude significant sections, such as women. While seemingly participatory, equitable and efficient, they cloak substantial gender-related inequities and inefficiencies. (The paper also analyses what underlies such unfavourable outcomes and how the outcomes could be improved).

(The interactive effect of one outcome on another is examined as well). Excluding women (often the principal users of community forests) from a decision-making bodies could have a range of negative efficiency fallouts, such as the framing of inappropriate or inequitable rules that are difficult to enforce.

I analyse these issues- which typically cut across class/caste divisions-mainly from a gender perspective. Where relevant, the interplay of class/caste with gender, in defining outcomes for different categories of women, is also outlined). The outcomes of group functioning are determined especially by rules, perceptions, in addition to the household and personal endowments and attributes of those affected. All of these factors can work to the disadvantage of women, both separately and interactively. To what extent they can be changed in women’s favour will depend on women’s bargaining power vis-à- vis the community, and the family. (The factors that are likely to affect bargaining power in these three arenas are spelt out as well). While the context here is community forestry, the conceptual framework is relevant to understanding the gendered dimensions of group functioning in a number of other contexts, including water user’s associations.

The paper is based largely on the field visits and interviews the author undertook during 1998-99 in 87 community forestry sites across five states of India (Gujarat, Karnataka. Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and the Uttar Pradesh hills) and two districts (Kaski and Dang) of Nepal.2 These are supplemented by existing case studies and some earlier visits to selected sites. Information was obtained mostly through unstructured interviews with villagers, at times with women and men in separate groups, at other times with both sexes jointly. in additition individual interviews with key informants, especially office bearers in the community forestry groups.


In rural South Asia, forests and village communities have always been an important sources of basic necessities and supplementary livelihoods, providing villagers with firewood, fodder, small timber, and various non-timber products. Especially for the poor and women who own little private land, they have been a critical element in survival. In India’s semi-arid regions in the 1980s, for instance, the landless and land poor procured over 90% of their firewood and satisfied 69-89%I of their grazing needs from common pool resources (Jodha, 1986). At that time, firewood alone provided 65-67% of total domestic energy in the hills and desert areas of India and over 90% in Nepal as a whole (Agarwal, 1987). This situation remained largely unchanged even in the early 1990s when community forestry programmes were formally launched in both countries Firewood was then still the single most important source (and for many the most important source) of rural domestic energy in South Asia, and was still largely gathered, not bought. In 1992-93, for instance, 62% of rural India’s domestic energy came from firewood. ln most Indian states over 80% of rural households used some firewood as domestic fuel; and, taking an all-India average, only about 15% of the firewood so used was purchased (Natrajan, 1995).

Over time, however, people’s ability to fulfil their needs had been eroding with the decline in communal resources, due to both, degradation and shifts in property rights, away from communities to the State and to individuals. The push toward community forest management represented a small but notable reversal in these processes of statisation and privatisation, toward a reestablishment of greater community control over forests and village commons. Indeed therce is now a mushrooming of community forestry groups (CFGs) in South Asia.3

In India, these CFGS include: (i) State-initiated groups formed under Joint Forest Management (JFM) programme launched in 1990, in which village communities and the government share the responsibilities and benefits generating degraded local forests. (ii) self-initiated groups, started autonomously by a village council, youth club or village elder and concentrated mainly in Bihar and Orissa; and (iii) groups with a mixed history, such as the van panchayats or forest councils in the hills of Uttar Pradcsh (UP) initiated by the British in the 1930s. Some of these have survived or been revived by NGOs. JFM groups are the most widespread, both geographically and in terms of forest area. To date, virtually all Indian states have passed JFM resolutions. These allow participating villagers access to most non-timber forest products and to 25-50% (varying by state) of any mature timber harvested. There were approximately 63,000 JFM groups in 2001, covering 14.2 million hectares (mha) or 18.6% of the 76.6 mhaa administered as forest land (Sehgal, 2001). In addition, there are a few thousand groups of the other types.

Nepal’s community forestry programme launched in 1993 is largely State-initiated. Here the State transfers even good forest to a set of identified users form a forest user group (FUG) and are entitled to all of the benefits.4 In 2000, there were 9100 FUGs involving one million households and covering 0.66 mha or 11 .4% (the target being 61% ) of the country’s 5.8 mha of total forest land (Government of Nepal, 2000). In both India and Nepal, NGOs can cat as catalysts or intermediaries in group formation and functioning.

Unlike the old systems of communal resource management, which typically recognised the usufruct rights tit all village residents, the new CFGs cut a more formalised system of rights. Typically these rights are based on membership (as in the state-initiated groups), or on rules specified by selected (often self-selected) community members (as in the self-initiated). In other words, membership, or some other formal system, is replacing citizenship as the defining criterion for establishing rights in the commons.

This raises some critical questions, such as: how are the CFGs performing in terms of participation, equity and efficiency from the perspective of women, especially the poor? Are the emerging systems of rights in communal property inclusive and equitable, or are they replicating the patterns of elite and male centeredness that characterise rights in private land ? The section below focuses on these concerns.

Gendered Outcomes: Participation, Equity and Efficiency

In terms of forest regeneration, many CCG, have had notable success. Often all that is involved is restriction of entry and protection, although in some cases replanting is also done. Even with simple protection, natural revival is often rapid if the rootstock is intact. Within five to seven years, many of the severely degraded tracts in semi-arid India have been covered with young trees; and areas with some vegetation, but notably declining, show encouraging signs of regeneration. Hence in most ecological zones, as a result of the CFG initiatives, beneficial results are noted, and in a number of cases it has beeen reported that incomes and employment have increased,5 seasonal out migration has fallen,6 the land ’s carrying capacity has improved, and biodiversity has been enhanced.7 Some villages have even received awards for conservative (Shah and Shah, 1995; my field visits during 1998-99).

Viewed from a gender perspective (and especially the perspective poor women) however, these results look less impressive on several important counts: effective participation; equity in the sharing of costs and benefits; and efficiency in functioning.


In both India and Nepal, the State- initiated groups generally have a two- tier structure, consisting of a general body with members drawn from the whole village and an executive committee (EC) of some 9-15 persons. Typically, the general body meets once or twice a year and the EC meets about once a month. Both bodies, interactively, define the rules for forest use and benefit sharing, the structure of fines for rule violation, the method of protection (e.g. guards, patrol groups, etc.), and so on, which category of persons has voice in the general body and the EC bears critically on how well the organisations function, and who gains or loses from them.

Women’s effective participation in CFG decision-making would require only that they become members of the group (the general body, the EC), but that they attend and speak up at group meetings, and (at least some of time) can ensure that decisions are in their interest. Such participation is important both in itself, as an indicator of democratic institutional functioning and for its effects on cost and benefit sharing and on efficiency. To what extent do women in general, and poor women in particular, so participate?

Participation in Management

Women usually constitute less than 10% of the general bodies in m JFM groups;8they are typically absent in the self-initiated groups;9 and are few or none in the van panchayat.10 Their presence in Nepal’s FUGs is similarly sparse. A study of seven FUGs in eastern Nepal found that only 3.5% of those recorded as users in the FUGs were women (Dahal, 1994: 78).

In India, the eligibility criteria for membership in the JFM general body the EC vary by state. Eight of the 22 states for which information is so far available restrict general body membership to only one person per household. This is almost always the male household head. In eight other states, due to amendments in the initial orders, both spouses, or one man and one woman, can now be members, but this still excludes other household adults. Only three states have opened membership to all village adults. In the self-initiated autonomous CFGs, the customary exclusion of women from village decision-making bodies has been replicated. In Nepal’s FUGs, again, the household is the unit of membership, and in male-headed households it is the man’s name that is entered in the membership list (Seeley, 1996).

Without being general body members, women usually hear little about what transpires at meetings. Many women complain:

‘Our husbands don’t tell us about meetings. They simply say they have a meeting and go when the watchman brings around the notice for the meeting’ (Woman to Author, Five village mouza, Orissa, 1998).

‘When we ask them what happened at the meeting, they say: what will you gain by knowing?’ (Women to Author, Five village mouza, Orissa, 1998).

‘Typically men don’t tell their wives what happens in meetings. Even if there is a dispute about something, they don’t tell us; nor do they volunteer information about other matters’ (Women to Author, Kheripada village, Gujarat, 1999)

Women’s representation in the ECs is also typically low, although there is some variation by region and context. In a study of 20 IFM groups in West Bengal (East India) 60% had no women EC members, and only 8% of the 180 members were women. Landless families, similarly, are little represented ECs (Sarin, 1998). In many states, recent JFM resolutions require the inclusion of women in the EC, ranging from a minimum of 2 or 3 to one-third, found that the women so included were rarely chosen by other women as representatives. Sometimes, to fill the mandatory slots, male EC members chose the women even without consulting them. Such women are seldom active or effective.

In Nepal again, women have only a nominal presence in the ECs. Those who join are usually poorly informed about the activities of their FUG, and some are even unaware that they are EC members (Upadhyay and Jeddere- Fisher, 1998; Moffatt, 1998).

Whether from a lack of awareness, or the constraints discussed later, only a small percentage of the women who are general body or EC members usually attend the meetings. Those who attend rarely speak up, and if they speak they do speak, they say their opinions are given little weight.

‘Men don’t listen, except perhaps one or two. Men feel they should the spokespersons’ (Woman to Author, Garbe Kuna village, Kaski district, Nepal, 1998).

‘What is the point of going to meetings? We would only sit silently’ (Women to Author, Panasa Diha village, Orissa, 1998).

‘I attend van panchyat meetings, but I only sign, I don’t say much. Or I say I agree.’ (Woman van panchyat member to Author, Sallarautela village, UP hills).

Having a voice in the EC is important since this is the site for discussions and decisions on many critical aspects of CKG functioning.

As matters stand,women are not party to many crucial decisions. An analysis of JFM decision-making in five Gujarat villages revealed that all major decisions on forest protection, use, distribution of wood and grass, and future planning, were taken by men. The only joint decisions with women were those concerning tree nurseries (Joshi, 1998). Women are also often left out of the CFG teams that go on ‘exposure’ visits to other site, or that receive technical training in new silviculture practices.

Although there are some contrasting examples of all-women CFGs and mixed CFGs with a high female presence, these remain atypical. All- women CFGs, for instance, are found especially in the UP hills and parts of Nepal where there is high male out-migration; and a scattering of them have also emerged in other regions, catalyzed by a local NGO, a forest official, or an international donor.11 Occasionally women invite one themselves. There are no consolidated figures for India, but in Nepal, in 2000, all-women FUGs constituted less than 3.8% of all FUGs, controlling l.1%. Half of all-women FUGs have 10 ha or less, and virtually none have over 50 ha. Typically this is degraded land needing tree planting, while mixed FUGs commonly control a few hundred hectares and usually this is natural forest.12 Similarly, mixed groups with a high female presence (say 30% or even 50% women in the general body) are found only in selected pockets, as in parts of Gujarat and West Bengal.13

Participation in Protection

Despite their limited presence as formal members, many women play an active role in protection. In formal terms, the bounded forest area is usually protected either by employing a guard, with CFG members contributing the wage, or by forming a patrol group from among member households. A male patrol characterised 45% and 18% respectively of the 87 sites I visited. Only a small percentage of patrols were constitute by both sexes or by women alone, and there was a rare female guard. Occasionally, there are shifts from all-women to all-men patrols, and vice versa. More commonly, women patrol informally. In some villages of Gujarat and the UP s, they have formed separate informal protection groups parallel to men’s because they feel men’s formal patrolling is ineffective.

Women’s informal vigilance improves protection in important ways. In villages I visited, women told me that they had apprehended intruders both from other villages and from their own, and that when they caught women intruders they sought to dissuade them from breaking the rules. In fire fighting, like, women join in enthusiastically; and in several instances women’s alertness alone saved the forest.

On the one hand, therefore, most women are excluded from CFG membership and management; on the other hand, many women contribute notably to protection efforts, indicating their stake in forest regeneration. However, women’s limited involvement in the decision-making process has implications for both equity and efficiency.

Equity: Cost bearing

How equitable are the CFGs in the sharing of costs and benefits? The cost of forest closure arc broadly of two types: those associated with protection and management and those associated with forgoing forest use (see Table 1). The former usually includes costs such as membership fees, the forest guard’s pay, theopportunity cost of patrolling time, and so on. These types of costs are borne by men. The costs of forgoing forest use include the opportunity cost of time spent in finding alternative sites for essential items such as firewood and fodder, other costs (identified below) associated with firewood shortages, of livelihoods based on non-timber forest products, and so on. These types of costs fall largely on women.

Table 1: Main Potential Costs and Benefits of Forest Closure by Gender

Mainly affecting women

Mainly affecting men


Firewood shortages (more time and energy expended in collection and/or cooking; adverse health effects)

Fodder shortages (more time and energy expended in collection)

Increased time in stall feeing animals

Informal patrolling time

Erosion of some livelihoods: e.g. firewood sellers, NTFP collectors

Fines if caught stealing firewood

Enhanced (late entry) membership fee


Firewood supply (a few weeks, if forest is opened)

Fodder supply (a few weeks, if forest is opened)

Membership fee

Patrolling time/guard’s pay

Fodder shortages (purchase)

Loss of source for small timber

Erosion of some livelihoods: e.g. blacksmiths using wood fuel in furnaces

Small timber (if allowed)

Cash (if distributed) from sale of forest products

Use of collective fund

Note: This is a broad outline of the main direct costs and benefits. Not each of these need apply to every CFG. There may also be some indirect costs and benefits. For instance, a greater supply of firewood indirectly benefits the whole family.

NTFP = Non-Timber Forest Products. These are largely collected by women.

Consider the firewood-related effects in more detail. Firewood is an everyday need, obtaining which is mainly women’s responsibility (compared with, say, small timber that is needed occasionally for agricultural implements etc., and is mainly men’s responsibility). Typically when protection begins, human and animal entry is banned, especially in the semi-arid regions. Where the land was barren anyway this caused no extra hardship. But where earlier women could fulfill at least part of their firewood needs from the protected area, after closure they were forced to travel to neighbouring sites, involving additional time, energy, and (where those sites were also being protected) risk of being caught and fined.14 As a result, in the early years of JFM, ( Sarin, 1995) noted that in some protected sites in Gujarat and West Bengal, women’s collection time for a head load of firewood had increased from 1-2 hours to 4-5 hours or more, and journeys of half a kilometer had lengthened to 8-9. ln many households, women were also compelled to take their daughters along, spending over six hours a day to walk five times farther. for the same quantity of fuel wood (Shah and Shah, 1995). Over time this could negatively affect the girls’ education. When neighbouring villages too started protecting, many women faced severe shortages. Most sought to make do with the limited firewood table from trees on their home fields, supplemented by inferior fuels which have other negative consequences (described below). But even with such shifts, some (especially the land less) were compelled to continue collecting clandestinely, risking fines and abuse if caught.

Such gendered consequences were widespread, causing considerable resentment among the women. For example, in the Pingot village (Gujarat), women, asked about the award for environmental conservation conferred on the village, responded with bitterness: ‘What forest? We used to go [there] to pick fuelwood, but ever since the men have started protecting it they don’t even allow us to look at it!’ (Shah and Shah, 1995: 80).

In most places, this picture has remained largely unchanged even after several years of protection. One of the 87 CFGs I visited in 1998-99, firewood was available in 80. Of these 45% (60%) still had a ban on firewood collection, with 21 not opening the forest at all, and 24 opening it for a few days annually for dry wood collection and/or cutback and cleaning operations. The remaining CFGs allowed some collection, usually only of fallen twigs and branches. Even after years of protection, women thus reported a persistence of firewood shortages in most of the villages I visited in Gujarat, the UP hills, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh bordering Gujarat, and in the Kaski and Dang districts of Nepal. The exceptions were some parts of Orissa, Karnataka and Madhya with thicker forests, where protection had increased the firewood supply.

Some common responses by women are given below:

‘We go in the morning and only return in the evening. Since the end of the rainy season, we have been going every day. I go myself and so does my daughter. Earlier too there was a shortage but not as acute’ (Woman EC member to Author, Kangod village, Karnataka, 1998).

‘It is women who need the forest, they need firewood to cook… Men preach to women about not cutting trees, but what can women do? They cannot cook food without firewood and they cannot collect firewood from other places’ (Group discussion with women in Kabhre Palanchok, Nepal, cited in Hobley,1996:147)

Where possible, women have tried to substitute other fuels. A few are able to switch to biogas (usually where there is an effective NGO programme), but most turn to twigs, dung cakes, agricultural waste, or even dry leaves. Fire from these latter fuels needs careful tending which increases cooking time and prevents women from simultaneously attending to other work. Moreover, these fuels cause more fumes, with negative health effects in poorly ventilated conditions. In several villages women also report economising on fuel by forgoing a winter fire for space heating (even in the subzero temperatures of the Nepal hills). Giving the animals cold feed, not heating winter bath water heating it only for husbands, and so on.

Usually women from both middle and poor peasant households report such domestic energy problems, since even in the better-off homes firewood is typically gathered and not purchased. Most do not have many trees on their private land. Women of landless land or land poor households are however, the worst off, since without private land they also have no crop waste or trees of their own, and few cattle for dung.15 In fact, forest closure has forced many to sell off parts of their animal stock. As a poor woman in Khut village (UP hills) toId me: ‘We don’t know in the morning if we will be able to cook at nigh’ Another added: ‘Our bahus (daughters -in-law) have to undertake a full day journey to get a basket of grass and some firewood from the Reserve Forest.’ Her daughter-in-law pitched in. ‘But even in the Reserve Forest you can be caught by the forest guard. I paid Rs. 20 as a fine to retrieve my axe, and all I was doing was cutting a fallen log.’ Again in Nepal, in Tallo Goungonda villa (Kaski district), a group of poor women told me: ‘We go at night… Other women have gas and stoves, but we are poor, so we have to steal.’

Similarly, since grazing is usually banned, households with cattle have to procure fodder in other ways. Since cattle care is usually women’s responsibility. If the household cannot afford to buy fodder women have spend additional time looking for other sites to procure some. Moreover, animals now have to be stall-fed. In parts of Gujarat many women report an extra workload of 2-3 hours due to stall-feeding alone. Where some of the better-off households have replaced their goats with stall-fed milch cattle, it has further increased women’s labour.

As the forests have regenerated, at best these hardships have alleviated; they have not disappeared. Firewood shortages, for instance, continue to be reported even 8- 10 years after protection in many regions, despite quite large areas being protected. By one estimate, about 0.2 ha of forest is needed per household for meeting firewood and other subsistence needs, a many Gujarat villages have several times this area (Shah, 1997). Certainly, my in 15 of my 19 Gujarat fieldwork sites, the protected area per capita exceeded the norm (and 9 of the 19 villages were each protecting over 100 hectares). Although specific estimates (such as 0.2 ha per household) might be contested by some, many agree that both in Gujarat and elsewhere more could be extracted sustainably than is currently being allowed. This could be supplemented by measures, such as planning fuel wood plantations in a part of the forest, promoting and maintaining workable biogas plants, and so on. In many places, therefore, the scarcities that women are experiencing appears to have less to do with aggregate availability or a lack of potential solutions than with women’s bargaining power, whereby their problems are seen as individual/private rather than as warranting community attention.

Benefit Sharing

There are also gender inequities in benefit sharing. In some cases the benefits are not distributed at all. Among Orissa’s self- initiated groups, for e.g., a number of all-male youth clubs have completely banned forest entry and have been selling the wood (obtained from thinning and cleaning operations), as well as other forest produce. In many cases, the quite substantial funds so obtained have been spent on an annual religious festival (my field visits, 1998), or on a clubhouse or club functions (Singh and Kumar, 1993).

In other types of CFGS, the money is normally put in a collective fund to be used as the group deems fit. Women typically have little say in how it is used:

‘The money obtained from grass and firewood is kept by them in their fund. We have not seen one penny of it. We buy grass, which is auctioned by bundles’ (Women to Author, Ghusra village, Dang district, Nepal, 1998).

Where the CFGs distribute the benefits, say in the form of firewood or grass, as in some of the JFM groups, women of non-member households usually receive none, since entitlements are typically linked to membership. Often these are poor households whose members have to migrate for work, or are out all day on wage labour and cannot easily contribute to patrolling or to the guard’s wages.

Even in member households usually men alone can claim the benefits directly, either because only they are members, or because entitlements are on old basis, so that even if both spouses are members they get only one share. Of course women can benefit indirectly in some degree, say if the benefits are in kind (such as firewood); or where member households continue to enjoy to collect dry wood or leaves from the protected area.16 But where the CFGs distribute cash benefits, money given to men does not guarantee equal sharing, or even any sharing, within the family. In fact, outside the context of forest management there is substantial evidence of men in poor household spending a significant part of their incomes on personal items (tobacco, liquor, etc.), while women spend almost all of their incomes on basic household needs.17 This pattern is found repeated in the context of CFGs. In many cases, men are found to spend the money on gambling, liquor, or personal items.18

Many women are aware that unless they receive a share directly (rather than through male members), they may get nothing. When asked their views on this at a meeting of three JFM villages in West Bengal, in which both women and men were present, all the women wanted equal and separate shares for husbands and wives (Sarin, 1995). Being members in their own right would be one way in which women could benefit directly, provided that the individual and not the household was the unit of entitlement.

Inequities also arise because people differ in their needs, or in the ability to contribute or to pay. Broadly, three types of principles/norms can underlie the distribution of forest products: market-determined, contribution and need. While seemingly neutral, these distributive principles have notable gender and class implications. The market principle (or willingness to pay embodied in practices such as the auctioning of grass to the highest bidder tends to be both unequal and inequitable, since those who cannot afford to pay have to do without. Given that rural women, even in rich households, tend to have less access to financial resources than men, auctions tend to be both anti-poor and anti- women. Distribution according to contribution, say by giving each household that contributes to protection an equal number of grass bundle would be equal but inequitable for those more dependent on the commons for grass, such as the poorer households, and women in general. Moreover, women’s ability to contribute may be circumscribed: for instance, even if they wanted join patrol duty, they may be socially prevented from doing so by norms seclusion. Only where distribution embodies some concept of economic need such as where poor women are given rights to an additional grass patch, would the distribution be relatively more equitable, in that those most in need would get more.

In my fieldwork I found that contribution (in terms of membership fee, protection, etc.) was the most common criterion underlying distribution, with all contributing households having equal claims to the fuel wood or grass cut during the forest opening days. However, there were also occasional cases auctioning, such as the auctioning of grass in the UP hills and Nepal, and other forest produce by many of Orissa’s self-initiated groups. Economic need seldom guided distribution. Hence for poor women, in particular, the outcome tended to prove inequitable.

In recent the collective action literature, questions of equity have been raised largely in terms of whether existing economic and social inequality affects the possibility of collective action and efficient institutional functioning.19 There has been a relative neglect of whether or not the outcomes of collective action (in terms of, say, cost and benefit sharing) are equitable, and how those outcomes impinge on the sustainability of collective action. As argued above, equity of outcomes is important in itself, for evaluating institutions governing the commons, quite apart from the links between equity and efficiency (as between participation and efficiency) that are elaborated below.


Women’s lack of participation in CFG decision-making, and gender inequities in the sharing of costs and benefits from protection, can have a range efficiency implications. Some initiatives, for example, may fail to take off at all; others may not sustain the gains, or there may be a notable gap between the gains realised and those realisable (in terms of resource productivity and productivity, satisfying household needs, enhancing incomes, etc.). Inefficiencies stem from one or more of the following problems (see also, Agarwal, 2000b).

First, there are rule violations. In almost all the villages I visited there were at least some cases of rule violation, and at times this was a frequent occurrence. Violations by men usually involve timber for self-use or sale (the latter in areas with commercially valuable trees). Violations by women typically involve firewood. Where a CFG bans collection without consulting women or addressing their difficulties, many women are under great pressure to break the rules, given their daily need fuel wood. Sometimes, in situations of acute need, women enter into persistent altercations with the guards. In one Gujarat village the guard threatened to resign as a result. Only then did the EC address the issue and agreed to open the forest for a few days annually.20 In Agarwal’s study (1999) of a van panchayat village, women constituted 70-80% or reported offenders between 1951 and 1991, many of them belonging to poor and low caste households.

A second source of inefficiency lies in inadequate information sharing women. Information about the rules (especially membership rules), conflicts wintered, or other aspects of forest management, does not always reach women (my field visits, 1998-99). Similarly, male forest officials seldom consult women or seek their feedback when preparing micro-plans for forest development. Some women hear about the plans through their husbands, others not at all (Guhathakurta and Bhatia, 1992). Such communication problems can prove particularly acute in regions of high male out-migration.

Thirdly, inefficiencies can arise if the male guard or patrol fails to notice resource depletion. During my 1995 field visit to Gujarat, a women’s informal patrol in Machipada village took me to the protected site, and, pointing out the illegal cuttings which the men had missed, noted: ‘Men don’t check carefully for illegal cuttings. Women keep a more careful lookout’. My subsequent work in 1998-99 revealed similar differences in several other field sites. This gender difference, at least in part, arises because of women, as the main and most frequent collectors of forest products, are more familiar with the forest than men.

Fourthly, there are problems in catching transgressors. In virtually all the regions I visited, all-male patrols or male guards were unable to deal effectively with women intruders because they risked being charged with sex harassment or molestation. Threats to this effect were not uncommon when non-member women, or women from neighbouring villages were caught. In some incidents, women and their families had even registered false police cases against patrol members, or beaten them up. Equally, however, women on their own find it difficult to do night patrolling or to confront aggressive male intruders. By all accounts, the most efficient solution appears to be a patrol team consisting of both sexes. Recognising this, in some regions male patrollers have included some village women in their patrol, but this is atypical.

When women voluntarily set up informal patrols, even where there is a male guard or patrol, the efficiency of protecting can improve notably. In their study of twelve van panchayats, Sharma and Sinha ( 1993), found that the four which could be deemed ‘robust’ all had active women’s associations. However, in so far as women’s groups are typically informal, they lack the authority to punish offenders who still have to be reported to the formal (typically all-male) committees. This separation of authority and responsibility introduces inefficiencies in functioning. For instance, sometimes male EC members fail mete out punishments to the culprits that women catch, causing women to abandon their efforts. I found several such cases in Karnataka, Gujarat and the UP hills. Also, when women catch intruders, they are seldom party to discussions or decisions on appropriate sanctions.

Fifthly, efficient functioning requires effective methods of conflict resolution. This is made difficult with women’s virtual exclusion from the formal committees, especially where the conflict involves women, as is not in frequently the case with firewood-related intrusions.

A sixth form of inefficiency stems from taking little account of women’s knowledge of plants and species when preparing plans for forest regeneration. Women and men are often privy to different types of knowledge due to differences in the tasks they perform, and in their spatial domains. Women as the main fuel and fodder collectors can often better explain the attributes of trees than men (Pandey, 1990); and can identify a large number of trees, shrubs, and grasses in the vicinity of fields and pastures (Chen, 1993). In general, women are better informed about the local environment in which they gather and collect and men about species found in distant areas (Gaul, 1994). Women’s systematic exclusion from decision-making and management of new planting programmes is thus likely to have negative efficiency implications, by failing to tap women’s knowledge of diverse species for enhancing biodiversity.

A seventh form of inefficiency can arise from ignoring possible gender differences in preferences. Say regarding when grass should be cut or which trees should be planted. I found that in the rare cases when women were consulted, they often came up with alternative, more suitable suggestions on when the forest should be ripened for forest produce collection. Women are also known to usually prefer trees which have more domestic use value, as for fuel and fodder, while men more typically opt for trees that bring in cash.21 (the exceptions being cases where fuel and fodder are ample, in which case women too might prefer commercial species: Chen, 1993). Women’s greater involvement in forest planning would thus better fulfill household needs and commitment to the initiative.

Basically, when examined from a gender perspective, it is clear that the CFGs are violating many of the conditions deemed by several scholars to be necessary for building enduring institutions for managing common pool resources. This includes conditions such as ensuring that those affected by the rules participate in framing and modifying the rules; that the rules are simple; that there are effective mechanisms for monitoring the resource and resolving conflicts; and so on.22 Despite women’s low involvement, forests regenerate, but some of the initiatives might not sustain, and others might produce less than the full potential benefits.

What determines Gendered Outcomes?

The gender-related efficiency outcomes discussed above are in large part secondary outcomes, stemming from women’s low participation in the CFGs and from inequities in the rules of forest use, benefit sharing, etc. Efficiency outcomes are therefore not discussed separately below. Rather, I focus on what underlies women’s low participation and the inequities in cost benefit sharing.

In broad terms, the degree of participation and the distribution of costs and benefits can be seen to depend especially on the following factors: rules, norms, perceptions, the person’s individual endowments and attributes, and their household endowments and attributes (which define where they fall within the structural hierarchies of class, caste, etc.)

Factors Affecting Women’s Participation Rules

In formal CFGs, such as the JFM groups in India or the FUGs in Nepal, rules determine membership in the general body or the EC. As noted earlier, where the rule restricts membership to only one person per household, the main household head tends to join. The rule that allows one man and one woman household is somewhat more inclusive; but full inclusiveness would require all adults to be allowed to join. This is rare.

In addition to the rules themselves, a lack of awareness of the rules, or changes therein, can also constrain women’s participation. In West Bengal, for instance, a study of 19 CFGs showed that even four years after the state order was amended to allow women’s inclusion, barely two-fifths of the members knew of the change (Raju, 1997).

Among the self-initiated groups (that lack formal membership rules), long-standing conventions, which traditionally excluded women from public decision-making forums, also deny women entry into the CFGs.

Social Norms

Even when membership rules are favourable and women join, they seldom attend or speak up at meetings because social norms place strictures on their visibility, mobility, and behaviour. These norms, whether internalised by women or imposed on them by threat of gossip, reprimand, or even violence, impinge directly on women’s autonomy and ability to participate effectively in CFGs dominated by men.23

Some communities have quite strict female seclusion norms. But more pervasive is the subtle gendering of physical space and social behaviour. For instance, norms often dictate a gender segregation of public space. Women of ‘good character’ are expected to avoid village spaces where men congregate, such as tea stalls and the market place (Agarwal, 1994). For older women, restriction is generally less, but never fully absent. As a result, many women feel uncomfortable going to CFG meetings, unless explicitly invited by the men:

‘The meetings are considered for men only. Women are never called. The men attend and their opinions or consent are taken as representative of the whole family- ‘it’s understood’ (Woman to in van panchayat village, UP hills, cited in Britt, 1993: 148).

‘Rural women and men can’t sit together. But we convey our decisions to them’ (Man to Author, Chattipur village, Orissa, 1998).

The gender division of labour is another pernicious norm. The fact that women bear the main responsibility of childcare and housework, in addition to the load of agricultural work, cattle care, etc., makes for high work burdens and logistical constraints. This seriously restricts women’s ability to attend lengthy meetings held at inconvenient times. As some women in Barde village Karnataka, South India told me in 1998: ‘There are problems in attending meetings since we need to cook and serve the evening meal. The meeting is long. We also have to feed the cattle’. Men are usually reluctant to share not domestic tasks and childcare, but even cattle care. Most women in the van panchayat villages she studied told Mansingh (1991) that they did not have time to ‘sit around for [the] four hours that it took to have a meeting in the middle of the day’. As a result, women’s attendance thinned out over time.

Norms also reduce women’s participation by creating subtle gender hierarchies, such as by requiring women to sit on the floor while husbands and older men sit at a higher level on cots, or requiring women to sit at the back of the meeting space where they are less visible and less able to raise a point effectively. Moreover, where senior male family members are present, women do not attend meetings, or do not oppose men publicly. The hierarchy that marks ‘respectful’ behaviour in the family also marks community gatherings.24

Social Perceptions

Incorrect perceptions regarding women’s abilities impinge on men’s willingness to include women in the CFGs. Men often view women’s cut in CFGs as serving no useful purpose and tend to downplay their contributions. Some men’s direct responses to questions are indicative:

‘There is no advantage in having women in the EC. We have been told by the forest officials that we must have two women in the committee, that is have included them’ (Man to Author, Pathari village, Karnataka).

‘Women can’t make any helpful suggestions’ (Man to Author, Arjunpur village, Orissa, 1998).

‘Women are illiterate. If they come to meetings, we men might as well stay at home’ (EC chairman to Author, Ghusra village, Dang district, Nepal, 1998).

In some cases, I found that the men who were decrying my interviewing the women on the grounds that they mere illiterate, were themselves illiterate!

Entrenched Territorial Claims

Men oppose women’s inclusion much more strongly once their own claims are entrenched. For instance, where CFGs start out with only male members, or where men feel they have a prior claim to the land, they resist new claimants. Some young men in Basapur village (Karnataka) reacted to the idea of including women in CFGs as follows: ‘Women have DWARCA,25 they have savings groups, why don’t you leave the CFGs to us men?’ (Author’s fieldwork, 1998). Men in Asundriya village, Gujarat, strongly oppossed NGO attempts to increase women’s CFG membership arguing: ‘Why do we need women? What we are doing is ok’ (Auhtor, fieldwork, 1999). In Kudamunda village, Orissa, when I asked the women who wanted their own separate patch for protection why they needed one, they responded:

‘If we have our own forest, we would not need to ask the men each time for a bit of wood.

They are not willing to give us even a patch to protect. Why would they be willing to give us a whole tree if we asked?’

Personal Endowments and Attributes

Women’s lesser access to personal property or political connection reduces the weight of their opinions. In addition, limited experience in public interaction undermines their effectiveness in public forums. Some of these disadvantages can partly be overcome if the women are older, married, have leadership qualities, and the self-confidence to speak up. In many CFGs, the few women members are widows, or older married women living in their parental homes who often tend to be less socially constrained (Narain, 1994; Britt, 1997).

Household Endowments and Attributes

Finally, factors such as the class and caste position of the woman household are likely to matter where the village is multi-caste and dominated by the upper-caste, or where the CFG is constituted of several villages that caste/class homogeneous in themselves, but that differ hierarchically in this respect from other villages in the CFG.26 But the caste factor works in complex ways. On the one hand, being low-caste and poor can adversely affect a person’s ability to bargain for a better deal within a predominantly upper-caste community; and even low caste men (like women in general) often hesitate to speak up at meetings in such contexts. On the other hand, low-caste women are less subject than upper-caste women to norms of seclusion, restricted mobility and soft speech.

Factors Affecting Distributional Equity

Similar (but not identical) factors affect gender inequitable outcomes in terms of costs and benefits. The principal factor underlying gender differences in cost sharing appears to be social norms governing the gender division of labour. As already discussed, women’s primary responsibility for firewood and fodder means that women bear the bulk of the costs of forgoing forest use.

Benefit sharing is likely to be affected especially by five types of factors. One, there are rules regarding entitlements to benefits. Here both entry rules and distribution rules matter. As noted earlier, access to some types of benefits is linked to membership. However, even if both spouses are members, the woman may not get a separate or additional share if the CFG has decided that the household rather than the individual will be the unit of distribution. In recent years, this has in fact proved to be a bottleneck in inducting women members in parts of Gujarat, where women are demanding shares on an individual basis as a condition for their joining. Hence while women’s low participation in CFG decision-making affects equity of outcome through the distribution rules, inequitable distribution rules can, in turn, restrict women’s participation.

Two the norms/principles (willingness to pay, contribution, or need) underlying distribution affect equity or benefit sharing. At present (as noted earlier), contribution is the dominant criterion underlying distribution rules in most CFGs. Under this, all those contributing get equal amounts of firewood/fodder when distributed. Auctions are undertaken in some cases, and distribution by economic need is rare.

Three, perceptions about need, contribution, and deservedness matter. Even if there is to be a shift from contribution to need as the defining principle, whether or not women get a better deal can still depend on whether they were perceived as deserving more (Agarwal, 1997b, Sen, 1990). There can be and often is a divergence between what a person actually contributes, needs, or is able to do, and perceptions about her/his contributions, needs and abilities. Hence, for instance, women’s contribution to household income is often undervalued, both by family members and by those implementing development programmes, because of the ‘invisible’ nature of many household tasks that women perform. These tasks (such as collecting firewood and fodder, stall-feeding animals, storing and processing grain, etc.) are often economically invisible since they usually do not bring in cash returns; and those done within the home compound are also rendered physically invisible.

Hence, women seen to be participating in forest management would be better placed to claim equal benefits with men in that their contributions would better recognised.

Four, whether or not the outcome is equitable depends on pre-existing personal endowments and attributes. Since women as a gender (even if not women as individuals) have fewer private economic endowments, CFG shares given only to male members typically result in inequitable outcomes for women in both rich and poor households. Again, women’s personal attributes such as age and marital status can affect intra-household distribution by influencing perceptions about deservedness.

Five, as we’ve noted, how acutely women are affected by forest closure or shortages is influenced by their household’s economy endowments and social attributes, in particular by their household’s class, caste, ethnicity, etc. However, in some respects, this can work in both directions. For instance, while women in upper-caste households that own land and animals can get some fuel a fodder from private assets, they are also likely to face greater social strictures on their mobility, which would limit their options with respect to alternative collection sites. Moreover, for fuel wood, except those able to afford cooking gas, the class difference may not be substantial, since many women even middle of peasant households have to depend mostly on what they themselves can gather.

Improving Outcomes for Women: The Bargaining Framework

In what ways can the factors noted above be acted upon to improve outcomes? Some factors predate the forestry programmes and have deep economic and social roots. The programmes could, however, either entrench them further or provide an opportunity for weakening them. Other factors, such as CFG rules, are part of institutional functioning. Both types of factors are constituted at several levels. Rules, for instance, are broadly made at two levels: the State and the community. Membership criteria under JFM are determined at the State level, but whether forest closure should be total or partial, or how different forest products should be distributed, is determined largely by the community. And social norms, social perceptions, and endowments, are constituted and contested at all levels — within the State, the community, the family, and various institutions of civil governance (including NGOs).

A promising analytical framework for examining the possibilities for change on all these counts is that of bargaining. Women’s ability to change rules, norms, perceptions and endowments in a gender-progressive direction would depend on their bargaining power – with the State, the community and the family, as the case may be. What would affect women’s ability to bargain effectively in these three arenas?

Bargaining: Some Conceptual Issues27: The State

First, consider bargaining with the State. To begin with, the State too can be seen as an arena of bargaining at multiple levels. For instance, the State may formulate gender-progressive laws at the highest level, but it could face resistance in implementation from the local bureaucracy. Or some departments or ministries may pursue gender-progressive policies within an overall gender- progressive State structure (women’s ministries are cases in point). Likewise, there are often some gender-progressive individuals within State departments who play key positive roles, typically but not only in response to demands made by interest groups.28 In other words, the State is an arena of contestation between parties (such as policy making and policy implementing bodies), and or between different regional elements of the State structure, with varying commitments to gender equality.

The State might respond positively to demands by gender-progressive groups/NGOs because such groups could build up political pressure, say with Support of opposition parties and/or the media, with implications for voting patterns; or because of pressure from international aid agencies; or because the Sate recognises the inefficacy both of market mechanisms and of its own machinery in implementing essential development programmes. In India, the State’s attempts since the mid-1980s to enlist NGO support for various developmental projects, including that of community forestry, reflects this recognition.

We would expect women’s bargaining strength with the State to depend on a complex set of factors, such as, whether they function as a group or as ‘individuals; and the cohesiveness and strength of the group. The bargaining of such a group is likely to be higher the larger and more unified it is; the greater the political weight carried by the castes of which it is composed; the greater its command over economic resources; the more the support it gets NGOs, the media, academics, and international donors; and the more State officials are influenced by gender-progressive norms and perceptions.

The community

The second important arena of bargaining is the community. Implicit or explicit bargaining can occur between an individual (or a subset of individuals) and the community over the rules and norms governing, say, economic resource use, social behaviour, and over the enforcement of those rules and norms. Non-compliance with CFG rules could be seen as a form of implicit bargaining.

As with the State, women’s bargaining power within the community would be enhanced if they had support from external agents such as NGOs and the State. Group cohesiveness and strength is also important. For instance, an individual woman breaking seclusion norms could easily be penalised, say by casting aspersions on her character. Such reprisals are less possible if a group of women decide to transgress the norms.”

In addition, in a multi-caste/class-heterogeneous village, we would expect women’s bargaining power to depend on the socio-economic composition of their group and their ability to command funds. In the sharing of communal resources, for instance, the negotiating strength of low-caste or poor peasant women, even if they formed a group, is likely to be weaker than that of high caste or rich peasant women whose caste or class as a whole commands great power in the village.

The Family

The third major arena of bargaining is the family. Intra-family bargaining for a more equitable sharing of benefits or tasks, or for greater freedom to participate publicly, is perhaps the most complex aspect of bargaining. This complexity is spelt out in Agarwal ( 1994, 1997b). but broadly four types of factors are likely to impinge on a woman’s bargaining power in the home: her personal endowments and attributes (educational level, whether or not she earns an income, property ownership, age, marital status. etc.); her ability to draw upon extra-household support from friends, relatives, women’s groups in the village, gender-progressive NGOs outside the village, and the State; social norms which might define who gets what, or who does what within the household); and social perceptions (say about deservedness). Some of the common determinants of bargaining power in all three arenas discussed above are support from external agents, social norms and perceptions, and group strength. Norms, perceptions, and group strength require some elaboration.

Social norms can affect bargaining power in both direct and indirect ways. For instance, norms that restrict women’s presence in public spaces directly reduce women’s ability to bargain for rule changes within CFGs. In addition, they do so indirectly by reducing women’s ability to build contacts with NGOs or State officials. Social norms can also influence how bargaining is conducted: e.g. covertly or overtly; aggressively or quietly. In cultures contexts where social norms stifle explicit voice, women may be pushed into using covert forms of contestation within the family, such as persistent complaining or withdrawing into silence (Agarwa1, 1994). Moreover, attempt to change social norms can themselves constitute a bargaining process.

Social perceptions can affect women’s bargaining power in so far as women’ contributions and abilities diverge from perceptions about their contributions and abilities. As noted earlier, much of what women do is rendered invisible and therefore undervalued by both families and communities. To the extent that women internalize these perceptions, they can self-restrict their range of options or what they seek to change and bargain over. To enhance women’s bargaining power, a necessary step would thus be to change women’s own perceptions about their potential options and abilities, as well as the perceptions of their families, the community and the State regarding their abilities and the legitimacy of their claims.

Group strength can prove to be a critical factor at all levels of bargaining and in all form s of bargaining (including over social norms and perceptions).

Here village women’s group strength derives not merely from the number of women who would like, say, a change in rules and norms, but also from the willingness to act collectively in their common interest, an interest predicated on gender. In other words, it depends on whether gender is a basis of group identity over and above the possible divisiveness of caste or class. The creation of such group identity will thus need to be part of the process of improving outcomes for women.

Let us now consider ground experience in attempts to improve women’s participation and distributional equity in CFGs. These experiences to not illustrate all elements of the bargaining framework spelt out above, but they reveal some key elements.

Bargaining: Ground Experience: The State

JFM experience indicates that successfully bargaining with the State for changing the initial rules of entry is not very difficult. Pressure from external agents such as gender-progressive NGOs and key individuals, for instance, has led a number of Indian states to make JFM membership rules more women-inclusive. Here village women did not have to explicitly bargain for changes, but the women’s movement in South Asia has brought about a sufficient shift in perceptions regarding gender inequalities to make such issues, easier to resolve with the State, through outside intervention.Village women, on this count, thus start from a position of bargaining strength.

The Community

Bargaining with the community to ensure that more women- inclusive membership rules are implemented, and to increase women’s effective voice in CGFs, has proved more difficult. On the positive side, some of the gender-progressive NGOs, forest officials and donors have used their bargaining power with the community to bring about changes in women’s favour, sometimes on their own initiative, at other times when village women approached them.

For instance, some Indian NGOs have made high female membership in mixed groups a condition for forming the groups. In Gujarat, one NGO insists on 50% women when starting new CFGs. Similarly, some state-level officials in India have increased women’s membership in mixed groups, by stipulating that there should be at least 30% of women in the general body, or by refusing to start meetings unless the men also invite the women (Viegas and Menon, 1993; Sarin, 1998). For distributional equity, likewise, the staff of a Gujarat-based NGO took up women’s complaints about firewood shortages at a CFG meeting. This resulted in a shift from total closure of the forest to its opening for a few days annually. However, for a larger and sustained impact, an active input is required from women themselves.

Left to themselves, women have typically relied on covert forms of bargaining to change distributional rules, such as simply ignoring closure rules, challenging the authority of the patrol group or guard who catches them, persistently complaining, and so on. In some instances, this had led village committees to open the forest for short spells. However, complaining or breaking rules (with the risk of being caught and fined) are seldom the most effective ways of changing the rules. For effective change, women are likely to need more formal involvement in rule making and the bargaining power to ensure changes in their favour.

Ground experience suggests that to bring this about, for a start, a critical mass of vocal women is necessary. This can give women more voice in mixed forums, and help them challenge restrictive social norms and perceptions. As some women interviewed by Britt (1993: 146) in the UP hills stressed: ‘Without a good majority of women present it is impossible to express opinions.’ There is a growing consensus among gender-progressive NGOs and elements of the State apparatus that to build a critical mass of vocal women within CFGs will need, as a first step, the formation of separate women’s groups. Maya Devi (a Nepalese grassroots activist with long experience in group organising) puts it emphatically:

‘In mixed groups when women speak men make fun of them, so women need to learn to deal with this… When women join a [separate] group they gradually lose their fear of making fools of themselves when speaking up… Women need their own small groups. This is what I know from my 22 years of experience working with the government and NGOs.’

There is less consensus, however, on what type of group this should be. Where all-women CFGs have been formed, many have done well in terms of protection and increasing women’s self-confidence. However, so far, all-women CFGs (as noted earlier), have usually arisen in special circumstances, and are still marginal in terms of numbers and area protected. Also, they cannot solve the problem of women’s low presence and lack of effective voice in the more typical all male or mixed CFGs. For this, other kinds of efforts are needed. Toward this end, some rural NGOs have been forming all-women savings-and-credit groups, which unlike CFGs, do not involve a resource over there in a generalised community claim. In some regions, more functional women’s groups, such as mahila mangal dals in the Up hills, or amma samuhs in Nepal, are also doing well

Such separate women’s groups (organised around savings or some other issue) have helped build women’s self-confidence and experience in collective functioning and promoted a sense of collective identity. They have also increased women’s ability to deal with government agencies, improved male perceptions about women’s capabilities, and brought about some change in social norms which earlier confined women to the domestic space. The response below is fairly typical:

‘Men used to shut us up and say we shouldn’t speak. Women learned to speak up in a sangathan (group). Earlier, we couldn’t speak up even at home. Now we can be more assertive and also go out. I am able to help other women gain confidence as well’ (Woman leader to Author, Vejpur village, Gujarat, 1999)

These experiences are not dissimilar to those of many other rural women’s groups across South Asia, which too indicate that group strength, external agency support, ,and activities that enable women to make a visible contribution (especially in monetary terms) can alter social nouns and perceptions, and, increase the social acceptance of women in public roles. But in many villages, separate women’s groups have also sharpened gender segregation in collective functioning. Often women’s savings groups are seen as ‘women’s groups’ and the CGFs are ‘men’s groups’. Basically, working collectively in separate groups does not adequately challenge unequal gender relations or noticeably change the dynamics of mixed group functioning. In other words, forming separate women’s groups appears to be a necessary condition but not a sufficient one for women’s effective participation in the CFGs.

For effective integration, efforts that are more concerted appear necessary. In a few cases, NGOs working with both women and men have sought to integrate all-women groups with the CFG. An NGO in rural Karnataka, for instance, encourages women’s savings groups to discuss CFG functioning, collect CFG membership dues, and persuade CFG women to join CFG. As a result, in several of its villages, some 80-90% of the women in the savings groups are now in the CFG general body.30 To bring this about, however, has taken many years of persistent effort and trust building between the NGO, the women and the villagers.

An alternative approach (to my knowledge yet to be tried) could be to form a women’s sub- group within each mixed CFG. Such a subgroup could first meet separately to discuss women’s specific forest-related concerns, and then strategically place these concerns in the full CFG meeting. This could also enable female EC members to better represent women’s interests within the CFG.

The Family

Bargaining within the family, as noted, is one of the most complex issues to tackle and few rural NGOs directly intervene in intra-household relations. Forming all-women groups can, however, have indirect positive effects. For instance, during my field visits I found several cases where a women’s group had supported individual women in their negotiations with husbands, or where joining a group had improved women’s situation at home.

‘There are one or two men who objected to their wives attending our meetings, and said you can’t go. But when our women’s association came to their aid, the men let their wives go’ (Women to Author in Almavadi village, Gujarat, 1998).

‘My husband feels I contribute financially, take up employment, obtain credit for the home. This increases his respect for me.’ (Woman to Author, Almavadi village, Gujarat, 1998).

In other words, group strength and women’s visible contributions can help weaken restrictive social norms, and improve a man’s view of his wife’s deservedness. However, some norms, such as the gender division of domestic work, are particularly rigid. Also gender inequalities in economic endowments remain entrenched, putting women in a considerably weaker bargaining position in the family, relative to men (Agarwal, 1994, l997b).

Finally, any group, including a CFG, is likely to be affected not only by its immediate locale, but also by the wider context of structural and cultural inequalities within which it is located. For instance, both participation and distributional equity are affected by the pre-existing inequalities predicated on the caste and class of women’s households, as well as on gender. These inequalities are unlikely to decline substantially within the parameters of CFG functioning. For instance, greater participation in CFG alone is unlikely to, notably improve the economic endowment position of women vis-à-vis men or the poor vis-à-vis the rich. To change this would need more wide-ranging measures to enhance the access of women, and poor and low-caste households in general, to land and other assets.


CGFs are a significant example of group functioning. While many have done quite well in regenerating the environment (at least in an immediate sense), they have been less successful in bringing about women’s participation in decision-making, or in ensuring gender- equity in the sharing of costs and benefits from forest protection. As a result, they ha›’e also failed to tap the ful l potentiii l i i il lee t i vc effort. Improving participation and equity is thus important both in itself and because it can prove complementary to (rather than, as usually assumed, in conflict with) efficiency.

This analysis shows that for more participatory, equitable, and efficient outcomes, it appears necessary that there are changes in factors such as rules, norms and perceptions, and the pre-existing structural inequalities in endowments and attributes of women’s households and of women themselves.

As argued here, it is useful to conceptualize such change within a bargaining framework, and to act on the factors that will strengthen women’s bargaining power with the State, the community and the family. This, has been achieved to some degree through the intervention of external agents, such as NGOs, forest officials and donors, who in some cases have acted both directly and indirectly, the latter especially by forming separate women’s groups at the village level to enhance women’s self-confidence and collective strength. At the same time the analysis cautions that such separate women’s groups can also lead to greater gender segregation, unless conscious steps are taken to integrate women’s groups with mixed CFGs. An alternative approach, which might work better, is to form women’s subgroups within each CFG. In either case, there are only a few steps among the many that will be needed to transform mixed CFGs into more gender egalitarian institutions.


This postscript seeks to update and supplement the observations made in the paper. It is based on results from more recent empirical data and analysis. The paper was based on fieldwork undertaken in five states of India and two districts of Nepal in 1998-99. The postscript presents results from a more in-depth field study undertaken during 2000-2003 of 65 CFCs in three districts of Gujarat (India) and 70 CFGs in three districts of Nepal. The Gujarat districts were the same as those studied in 1998-99, but also included a large number of new CFGs. The Nepal districts were different from the earlier ones. The 2000-2003 sample was purposively selected to include CFGs with varying gender composition.

Among other aspects, the study focuses on the impact of the gender composition of the CFG executive committee (EC) on (a) women’s participation in decision-making, in terms of attending EC meetings and speaking up at them; (b) change in forest quality and regeneration with protection.

The preliminary results based on multivariate analysis for both Gujarat and Nepal show that the higher the percentage of women in the ECs (controlling for several other factors), the more likely are women to attend EC meetings. Women are also more likely to speak up at meetings where a greater percentage of them are in the EC. Interestingly, in terms of women speaking up, the gender composition variable is found to be statistically significant only when there are 33% or more women in the EC in the case of Gujarat and 25% or more in the case of Nepal. This finding provides empirical support for the observation made in the paper that a critical mass of women is likely to be needed to enhance women’s voice in public forums, although what percentage constitutes a critical mass can vary by content (see also Agarwal 2001 and forthcoming).

In addition, using a range of indicators for change in forest quality, higher percentage of women in the EC is found to be associated with improved forest quality by several indicators in both Gujarat and Nepal. A more disaggregated district-wise analysis shows that gender is a significant variable especially in certain districts, albeit not in all. This finding gives further substance to the paper’s argument that enhancing women’s participation in CFG decision-making is likely to improve efficiency.

In short, these new results lend substantial support to the overall argument of the main paper and constitute the first attempt to empirically examine and statistically test the impact of a group’s gender composition on women’s participation and on the efficiency of forest protection in South Asia.


1 This paper was first published in Group Behaviour and Development, edited by. J. Heyer, F. Stewart, and R. Thorp (Clarendon Press, Oxford), 2002. It has been published here with permission from UNU/WIDER. A postscript has been added to it, based on the author’s more recent research. A longer version of the 2002 paper also appeared as an UNU/WIDER working paper (Agarwal, 2000a)

2 In India, the term ‘state’ relates to the biggest administrative divisions within the country and is not to be confused with the ‘State’, used throughout in the political economy sense of the word. In Nepal the biggest administrative divisions are the ‘districts’. In India, districts are smaller divisions within states.

3 I will be using CFG as a general term to cover all types of community forestry groups

4 The government, however, retains the right to reclaim any forests seen to be mismanaged by the FUGs

5 ,See, e.g., Raju et al. (1993), Kant et at (1991), and SPWD (1994).

6 See, Viegas and Menon (1993) and Chopra and Gulati (1997).

7 Raju, et al. (1993); Arul and Poffenberger (1990); also my field visits in 1995 and 1998-99

8 Roy et al. (1992), Guhathakurta and Bhatia (1992), and Narain (1994); also my field visits 1998-99.

9 Kant et al. (1991), Singh and Kumar (1993), and my fieldwork in 1998-99

10 Sharma and Sinha (1993), Tata Energy Research Unit (TERI, 1995); also my field work in 1998-99. In the TERI study, out of the 50 van panchayats examined, only 9 had any women members.

11 Mukerjee and Roy (1993), Correa (1997), Adhikari et al. (1991), Mansingh (1991), Regmi (1989), Singh and Burra, (1993), and Raju (1997); also my fieldwork in 1998-99.

12 Calculated from figures given in Government of Nepal (2000).

13 Narain (1994), Viegas and Menon (1993); also my field visits in 1998-99.

14 Sarin (1995), Agarwal (1997a), also my fieldwork in 1998-99.

15 See also Jodha (1986) on differences between landed and land poor rural households in India, in their relative dependence on the commons for firewood and fodder.

16 Kant et al. (1991), ISO/Swedforest (1993), and Aru1 and Poffenberger (1990); also my fieldwork in 1998-99.

17 See, Mencher (1988) and Nonopen (1991) for India.

18 Guhathakurta and Bhatia (1992), and my fieldwork in 1998-99.

19 See e.g. Ostrom (1990), Bardhan (1993), and Baland and Platteau (1996,1999).

20 E.g., Shah and Shah (1995), Singh and Kumar (1993), and Agarwa1 (l997a); also my field interviews during 1998-99.

21 See e.g., Brara ( 1987), and Hobley (1996).

22 See, especially, Ostrom (1990), and Baland and Platteau (1996).

23 See also Stewart’s (1996) more general discussion on the function of norms in hierarchial contexts.

24 See also, Raju (1997)

25 DWACRA: Development of Women and Children in Rural Areas. This is an anti-poverty programme of the Indian government under which, among other things, women’s groups are given subsidised loans for income-generating activities.

26 My fieldwork in 1998-99. See also, Sarin (1998) and Hobley (1996).

27 For elaboration, see Agarwal (1997b).

28 See also, Sanyal (1991) and Agarwal (1994).

29 For elaboration and illustrative examples, see Agarwal (1994).

30 Personal communication in 1998 from Prathiba Mundergee, former worker in this NGO


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