Across sub-Saharan Africa, women play an important role in managing the forests that support their lives, livelihoods and households. Yet they are often excluded from decision-making processes affecting these natural resources. As many African countries take steps to decentralize natural resource management and strengthen local forest governance mechanisms, it is critical to understand the barriers that women face when they try to engage in forest management. Doing so can help ensure that decisions made at both national and community levels protect women’s access to forest resources as well as benefit from their wisdom on sustainable management.

This paper examines how power relations, authority and competing interests converge to shape both resource access as well as individual community members’ ability to participate in forest management. It identifies patterns of engagement in forest governance, explains these trends and highlights pathways through which women’s participation in managing these ecosystems may be improved. Field research, conducted in collaboration with Clark University and the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) in Liberia, finds that women’s livelihoods and the sustainability of forest resources would greatly benefit from women’s participation in local decision-making processes. Women, for example, often possess unique knowledge and skills that can help improve forest management, because they tend to use different forest resources than men. However, significant regulatory and social changes are needed to achieve this goal. This paper finds that a deeper understanding of local power relations and social dynamics must underpin efforts to foster gender and social equity. Such an analysis can also help decision-makers avoid risks to already vulnerable people and the forest resources on which they depend.

Key Findings

  • This paper examines how power relations, authority and competing interests converge to shape both resource access and the ability to participate in forest governance for different individuals in two forest-dependent communities in River Cess County, Liberia.
  • Conventional attitudes favoring male leadership, a lack of time and restrictive social norms limit women’s ability to contribute meaningfully to forest governance. Women with the lowest socioeconomic status are least likely to have the time and influence needed to engage in forest governance, thereby exacerbating existing inequalities and limiting the ability of forest user groups to make informed decisions.
  • Many men also face challenges to participation based on their natal status, their socioeconomic status and difficulties with group cohesiveness.
  • Shifting perceptions of women’s role in forest governance and management, together with gender quotas in forest user groups, leadership development for women and changing the dynamics of forest decision-making could have a positive impact on the health and stability of community forests in Liberia and beyond.

Executive Summary

This paper examines how power relations, authority and competing interests converge to shape both resource access and the ability to participate in forest governance for different individuals within a community. World Resources Institute (WRI), in partnership with the Humanitarian Response and Development Lab (HURDL) at Clark University and the African Women’s Network for Community Management of Forests (REFACOF), undertook this study to understand the nature of women’s engagement in forest governance at the community level in Liberia. The study sought to identify patterns of engagement in forest governance, explain these patterns and identify pathways through which women’s participation in forest governance might be improved (see Appendix, Research Methodology). Field research, conducted with the support of the Foundation for Community Initiatives (FCI) in Liberia, provides evidence suggesting that community forest management should more broadly engage women in decision-making. However, regulatory and social changes are needed to achieve this goal. The paper underscores that a deeper understanding of local social dynamics and power relations is needed to foster gender and social equity and avoid risks to already vulnerable people, as well as the forest resources upon which they depend.

The Research Problem

Across sub-Saharan Africa, women play a significant role in managing forest resources in support of their livelihoods and their households, yet they are often excluded from decision-making processes affecting the resources upon which they depend. Without women’s input, decisions neglect their need for access to forest resources that bring nutritional, medicinal and livelihood benefits to their households and ignore their wisdom for sustainable management of these products. Given that evidence from South Asia indicates that when women are engaged in forest governance, forest and human well-being outcomes improve, this paper set out to understand these connections in the African context, specifically Liberia. However, initial exploration of the study area revealed that women were not engaged in forest management. Therefore, the focus shifted to identifying pathways through which women’s participation in forest governance might be improved. Liberia’s current forest code has significant shortcomings with regard to promoting women’s engagement in forest governance, and the country is expanding the decentralization of forest governance. To effectively design laws, regulations and enforcement mechanisms that shape meaningful participation of women in forest governance structures, an in-depth understanding of local livelihoods, social dynamics and power relations is critical.

Key Findings

Livelihood vulnerability is a key determinant in forest management committee participation. Engagement in forest management committees is time consuming and fraught with political and power struggles. Our livelihoods analysis identified three groups, based on shared vulnerabilities and livelihood activities: severely limited asset livelihoods (SLAL), those with low asset livelihoods (LAL) and those with adequate asset livelihoods (AAL). Those comprising the SLAL and LAL groups struggled to provide sufficient food for their households, suffering to different degrees from labor and resource shortages. Across these groups, female-headed households faced severe hunger, particularly during planting season. This vulnerability necessitated that they prioritize farming and income-generating activities over community activities. Only those in the AAL group had the reserves to allow for the time away from farming and income-generating activities needed to participate in forest management committees. Through this participation and the benefits derived there from, the AAL group’s vulnerability was further reduced, and the gap between them and those in the SLAL and LAL groups widened.

Social norms are more rigorously upheld when determining who may participate in forest governance than around roles and responsibilities associated with other livelihood activities. Women and men from all vulnerability groups cited similar behavioral expectations for the genders, which included restrictions on the types of forest-related livelihood activities in which they may engage. Further, these expectations were policed through various locally legitimate means, with consequences for those who transgressed expectations. However, women from SLAL and LAL groups faced less severe consequences when they stepped outside of those norms. These women were both exempted from restrictions on participating in forest activities and were more likely to challenge norms restricting their participation in forest-based activities as these activities were one of the few avenues through which they could earn a livelihood. This resulted in their heightened knowledge of the forest and its products, which would make them valuable informants in forest management decisions. Paradoxically, however, they were most likely to be excluded from forest management committees.

Women’s participation in forest management committees is restricted by attitudes about their abilities and beliefs about their role in society. Complex social norms about women’s participation in activities outside the home, particularly if it will bring them into contact with other men, were a greater barrier to participating in forest management committees than time and social constraints. For example, women are often shy about speaking up in meetings due to a long history of being shunned when they speak in public. Women who were able to overcome these challenges to participate in forest group activities were perceived by men as not educated enough about the forest to make decisions. As a result, men did not engage women in such decisions, even when they attended forest management committee meetings. Further, some men believed women’s rights to and decision-making about the forest should be limited for fear that they would marry someone outside of the community who would take the community’s forest resources.

Tools of coercion serve to maintain social order and to maintain women’s limited and subordinate role. Families and communities enforced adherence to social norms in all aspects of life, including forest governance, through an escalating and socially legitimate set of sanctions. A progression of nonphysical consequences within a household ranged from a man’s refusal to eat his wife’s food, avoidance, turning her over to female elders to be advised or fined, sending her back to her parents’ home, domestic violence and divorce. Community sanctions included avoidance by other women and expulsion from community gatherings and organizations. Male transgressions, including the inability to control one’s wife, could result in disrespect and isolation. If the undesirable behavior continued, men faced the possibility of eviction from the community.


Context-specific, intersectional gender analyses should be used by forest project implementers to inform the design of interventions to mitigate against the perpetuation or widening of social and gender gaps, as well as to ensure that the approaches used advance social and environmental objectives to achieve their goals.

  • Transforming the nature of women’s participation in forest governance will be a political process that addresses entrenched social norms that men and women have a stake in maintaining. Without careful consideration of the mechanisms through which gender roles are socialized and legitimated, efforts to increase the participation of women and marginalized men in forest governance could result in negative consequences for the very constituencies that such initiatives are meant to assist.
  • Because the participation of women in public life is defined in very particular ways, there is a need to change the perceptions of communities to include the knowledge and skills that women can bring to forest governance initiatives as a starting point for longer-term, more transformative goals and outcomes.
  • Different strategies must be used for engaging women based on the specific barriers to participation that they face, which include time and resource constraints, as well as legitimacy in public meetings. These interventions must also pay attention to how well men are able to meet expectations to provide for their households as that is a factor in their standing in the community.

Policy advocacy to increase the number of women required to participate in forest user groups, as well as to broaden participation of men from across the vulnerability groups, may help to facilitate greater women’s access to forest benefits.

  • Regulations about forest management participation appear to be followed at the community level and therefore may be a means through which women’s participation, as well as that of marginalized men, may be increased and enhanced.
  • Awareness-raising of the value of varied perspectives for forest governance may help male leaders and elite men to be more open to broadening participation in forest governance.
  • Leadership development may improve the effectiveness of women and marginalized men as actors in forest management and decision-making.