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1 August 2002 Integrated Mountain Development: A Question of Gender Mainstreaming
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“Development without women is like a bird trying to take off with only one wing,” according to Abeba Habtorm, director of the Ministry of Education in Asmara, Eritrea. Are mountain women adequately integrated in development cooperation efforts internationally, by region, nationally, and in local communities? Has the vital role of women in sustainable development of mountain communities been sufficiently documented, understood, and especially taken into account in development projects? Mountain women's concerns have been the subject of debate during the last 3 decades, and some efforts have been made to develop more gender-sensitive policies and programs as well as more opportunities for mountain women, especially at the local level. Yet, there is still a great lack of disaggregated data on women's roles and responsibilities, on their access to and control over natural resources, services, and infrastructure, and on their knowledge of and participation in the elaboration of strategies to improve the situation they face as a result of male out-migration, globalization, and hence marginalization. The “bird” can take off only if women and men have equal opportunities to design policies and take part in decision making on more sustainable forms of mountain development at all levels.

Does the “mountain woman” exist?

As has often been pointed out, mountain women, men, and children usually have to contend with harsh environmental conditions, remoteness, and steep slopes. Mountain women play a vital role in turning these environmental factors into valuable cultural landscapes. They make a substantial contribution to the sustainable use and conservation of areas that are of inestimable value to mankind. Environmental conditions have also shaped their status. In quite a few mountain areas, law and custom have favored an enhanced status for many mountain women in the past. In Searching for Women's Voices in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas, Jeannette Gurung shows that many mountain women have had more freedom of movement and independence in decision making at the local level than have women in the lowlands. Less rigid indigenous beliefs have often led to greater status for mountain women, although this is not the case everywhere. Although the situation of mountain women is characterized by some common features, the social, cultural, and economic conditions faced by women in the South and the North, the East and the West, and even from one valley to the other vary greatly.

What do we know?

Careful analysis of women's and men's roles and responsibilities, their access to and control over natural resources, services, and infrastructure, their education and knowledge, and their opportunities to take part in decision making at the local, regional, national, and international levels is an indispensable prerequisite for enhancing sustainable development in mountain areas.

Reliable and systematically compiled data on the status of women and men, and of their roles and responsibilities in mountain regions throughout the world—ie, the material needed to support well-founded arguments for more gender-sensitive developmental efforts, policies, and programs—are virtually nonexistent. Information is not disaggregated by agro ecological regions, nor is it differentiated by sex. Few figures only are available at the country level, where existing data indicate a slight improvement in the situation of women in mountain countries in the last decade (see Table 1). Great disparities among countries remain, and equality is far from being achieved. But it is very doubtful, whether country-level data sufficiently reflect the situation of women in mountainous regions or if they are adequate for formulating developmental needs, policies, and programs in these regions.

Critical issues

In their introductory essay to a volume on gender and resource management, Corinne Valdivia and Jere Gilles argue that women are not only the major sources of family well-being but also the stewards of natural and productive resources. If they cannot participate in negotiation processes to provide for the well-being of their families, great losses to the environment and to society may result. Indeed, there is a close relationship between control and voice; to manage natural and other resources in a livelihood-improving way, women's voices need to be heard. A brief look at some critical issues indicates that this may be even more true for women in remote mountain areas.

Women's roles and responsibilities

Numerous studies have shown that mountain women have heavier workloads than men have. Men and women share agricultural and livestock tasks quite evenly, but women have additional domestic responsibilities, such as preparation of food, collection of water and wood for fuel, childcare, and maintenance of family health. Steep slopes, great distances, and especially the absence of men due to increasing out-migration intensify the workload of mountain women.

Access to and control over natural, social, and economic resources

Although women may have access to land, forest, and animals, they rarely have formal ownership of these resources, especially in developing countries. Their rights are often linked with their marital status. The lack of ownership limits women's access to other resources and information. They cannot use land as security to obtain the loans they need to invest in their farms or develop small, innovative businesses. Extension programs and training courses are still designed for male farmers, even where men are absent because of off-farm activities.

Despite the increasing number of initiatives by NGOs and governments to improve sanitation and access to medical services and modern communication networks in mountain areas, restrictive patriarchal systems often limit the benefits of such improvements for women.

Knowledge and education

As pointed out by Anand and Josse in this issue, mountain women and men possess a great wealth of indigenous knowledge, especially regarding the management of natural resources. Failure to recognize the gendered nature of knowledge and integrate women in development processes means losing half this knowledge.

Some of the rare gender-differentiated figures available at the country level indicate that school enrolment of girls in mountain countries seems to have improved in the recent past. Especially in Central and South America the percentage of girls with formal education is above the world average and remarkably higher than the rate in Asian countries. But information about the quality of formal education in mountain areas is lacking, and case studies show that female illiteracy rates are higher than the national average, especially in mountain areas.

Participation in decision making

Women are rarely involved in the formulation, planning, and execution of policies and programs (Figure 2). Nor are they usually explicitly mentioned in local, national, and international agreements. Hence, their perspectives, needs, and knowledge are often ignored. A closer look at the 10 thematic background papers for the upcoming Bishkek Global Mountain Summit in October 2002 reveals that gender-differentiated analyses 30 years after the first UN conference on women are still lacking. The special situation of women is sometimes acknowledged in a brief paragraph, but despite their vital roles in the economy and social fabric of mountain regions, women are not considered an integral part of the process of fostering sustainable mountain development.

Challenges for future research

There is undoubtedly an abundance of new research and information based on local case studies. But as Jane Pratt, a committed mountain researcher, states, “what is difficult to find are systematic, spatially disaggregated data…. This lack is critical because it makes the problems of mountain people invisible to governments and development agencies, and thus difficult to address through standard institutions and mechanisms at national and regional levels.” The greatest challenge is to undertake comprehensive studies in collaboration with local women and men, integrating their perspectives rather than conducting research from an outsider's perspective only. New approaches and mechanisms need to be developed to give mountain women and men a say in these studies.

The global research community has a special role in fostering gender-sensitive programs to compile convincing data that can be compared worldwide to give an adequate picture of the great contribution of mountain women to sustainable development, and of the difficult situation of men which forces them to migrate. The Mountain Research Initiative (MRI), launched 1 year ago, is the only global research program with the explicit objective of investigating the links between human and natural dimensions in mountains. All other global programs, such as the Global Mountain Biodiversity Assessment (GMBA) and the Global Observation Research Initiative in Alpine Environments (GLORIA), to mention only 2, focus mainly on biophysical aspects. Regional efforts focusing on and integrating human dimensions in research, such as the Andean Mountain Association and ICIMOD, also exist and in the case of ICIMOD have a gender component. There is a need to integrate these and other regional initiatives as well as to systematically compile data and findings on mountain women and men. One aim of the International Year of Mountains (IYM) forum, “Celebrating Mountain Women,” is to create a database of existing studies and research—a step in the right direction.

Challenges for development cooperation

As already mentioned in this issue, it is vital to acknowledge the crucial role women play and to systematically integrate women in development processes. In view of the overall objectives and visions of sustainable mountain development being formulated during the IYM, much more emphasis has to be given to a gender mainstreaming approach to meet ambitious targets. The processes of enhancing economic opportunity, decentralizing political power, and improving social and technical infrastructure can contribute to a more balanced and sustainable form of development only if gender mainstreaming is integrated (Figure 3).

Why not learn from others? The international World Water Council developed its World Water Vision in a participatory process that gave high priority to balanced participation of women and men. The main objectives were:

  • To integrate a gender perspective in the design and implementation of the World Water Vision and its implementation plan.

  • To enabe women and men to express their opinions by participating in the regional, sectoral, and networking Vision consultations.

  • To put gender issues on the international agenda in the 21st century.

In such a process, mountain people—both women and men—have to be given a more important voice. And this voice must be heard by decision-making bodies that have male and female members. Giving high priority to fostering communication channels concerned with gender issues at the local, regional, national, and international levels is a prerequisite.



J. D. Gurung editor. 1999. Searching for Women's Voices in the Hindu Kush–Himalayas. Kathmandu: International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development. Google Scholar


D. J. Pratt 2002. Democratic and Decentralised Institutions for Sustainable Development in Mountains. Thematic Paper for Bishkek Global Mountain Summit. UN Environmental Program (UNEP) [draft]. Available at Accessed: May 2002. Google Scholar


J. Sass 2002. Women, Men and Environmental Change: The Gender Dimensions of Environmental Policies and Programs. Washington, DC: Population Reference Bureau. Google Scholar


World Water Forum 2000. World Water Vision: A Way Forward. Results of the Gender Mainstreaming Project. Marseille, France: World Water Council. Google Scholar


C. Valdivia and J. Gilles . guest editors. 2001. Gender and resource management: households and groups; strategies and transitions. Agriculture and Human Values 18.1(special issue):5-9 Dordrecht, The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers. Google Scholar



Gender Mainstreaming

…is the process of assessing the implications for women and men of any planned action, including legislation, policies and programs in all areas and at all levels. It is a strategy for making women's as well as men's concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programs in all political, economic and societal spheres, so that women and men benefit equally and inequality is not perpetuated. The ultimate goal is to achieve gender equality. (ECOSOC, 1997)


Enhancing the status of women requires more than focusing on women's roles in society. The entire social context must be analyzed to determine the need for measures to promote equality of opportunity. (Photo by Author)



Participants at a workshop on Autodidactic Learning for Sustainability (ALS) in Ak Bosogo, Kyrgyzstan. The ALS approach has proven to be one successful way of achieving sustainable development because it enables women and men to formulate their own vision of development together. (Photo by Andreas Kläy)



To counterbalance present development trends, characterized by high outmigration primarily of men, successful integrated mountain development requires innovative economic and political policies (such as compensation payments, decentralization), improvement of social and technical infrastructure, based on gender mainstreaming to achieve gender equality and a balanced demographic structure.



Data on mountain women are rare. These selected figures on women's educational status and participation in decision making give a very incomplete picture of the lives of mountain women. Shaded cells indicate percentages higher than the worldwide average. (Sources: UNICEF—The State of the World's Children, 1994 and 2001; Population Reference Bureau—Women of our World, 2002; UNDP—Human Development Report, 2001).

Susanne Wymann von Dach "Integrated Mountain Development: A Question of Gender Mainstreaming," Mountain Research and Development 22(3), 236-239, (1 August 2002).[0236:IMDAQO]2.0.CO;2
Published: 1 August 2002

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