Women conservationists brave discrimination, and the wild

Female environmentalists struggle against gender stereotypes as they work to save Nepal’s nature

Mukesh Pokhrel in Himal Khabarpatrika 13-19 May

When Madhuri Karki, then chief of the District Forest Office in Bhaktapur, introduced herself to the CDO in Chitwan, he asked, shocked: “A woman forest officer?”

Karki was the first female forest officer in the country, and those were the days when the proportion of women in the Department of Forest was so small, Karki recalls: “There was a queue of people who came to watch us as if we were animals in a zoo.”

Twenty years on, Karki is under-secretary in the department, but things have not changed much. The number of women in conservation has gone up, but the perception that being a forest officer is a ‘man’s job’ still remains.

Saraswati Sapkota was 18 when she started working as a national park officer. The enthusiasm for her first job soon turned bitter when she got only two pairs of uniforms when the male officers all got three pairs every year. She was the only woman among 15 staff members.

“It was a way of showing me that they thought I was not capable,” recalls Sapkota. “Instead of trying to understand the issues women face working in national parks, and trying to make the workplace female-friendly, people treated us as a part of the problem.”

This is all very familiar to other female conservation officers here. They work equally as hard as the men, if not more, to contribute to the protection and conservation of wildlife, but are not given the same responsibilities or trust.

The working conditions are challenging: living alone in the middle of the jungle, patrolling with Army soldiers, being on call all the time, being close to wild animals, having to climb trees and do physically challenging work. This has given people the notion that women are not suitable for this kind of work.

But today Karki, Sapkota and others are breaking the stereotypes. There are currently 86 female forest officers in the Wildlife and Forest Conservation Department. Women officers are not only doing well, but are rising up the ranks in the conservation field.

Pratibha Kakshapati worked in Chitwan National Park soon after joining, and was posted in Meghauli, an area that used to be severely affected by wild elephant attacks. She used to stay up all night, patrolling and securing the village perimeters from marauding wild elephants. She says, “Once you are on duty, there is no distinction between male and female. We all have to work equally hard.”

It is because of such dedication that women officers have earned the grudging respect of their male colleagues. People were initially hesitant to have women in charge of their community forests, demanding male officers instead. But women like Madhuri Karki held on, determined that they could do the job just as well. People gradually realised that female officers are not only capable and qualified for the job, but that they also understand forest related issues better.

Radha Wagle, who has been working in conservation, says the main problem for women is not the threat of wild animals or the physically challenging work, it is the attitude of men towards women.

Says Wagle, “There needs to be a major shift in the way men view women in this field.”
But she and others have taken the discrimination and snide comments in their stride, undaunted by the physically arduous nature of their work and the threat of wild animals.

Says Saraswoti Sapkota: “We take it all as a given, but unless male officers change their behaviour and attitude, more women will not join this profession.”

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