Guest column with Associate Professor Ruth Beilin

October 12 / 97

The gendered dimensions of Australian life have been in the news for the past weeks as our Prime Minister engaged her colleagues in The House over issues of misogyny and sexism. The gendered dimensions of natural resource management are undoubtedly a part of this same overall narrative. We can argue that around the world, issues about representation and performance associated with gender continue to underpin many cultural practices and social expectations of how to manage land and water, cope with climate change, mitigate risk from wildfire and other physical disasters and translate gender distinctiveness into policy and planning for change.

In frontier landscapes like Australia, the 1970s were a turning point in recognising the role of women in rural communities. There has been a gradual change in the depiction of farmers, for example, from the image of the lone man on the land to an equally likely one of a competent looking woman. Organisations like Women on Farms Gathering and Australian Women in Agriculture have raised the profile and progress rural and regional women's agenda, to counter what might be described as the hegemony of masculinity. In other parts of the world, women have long been the principal workers of small holdings even if the title for that land has been held by the men in their families.

Women in Development programs in the 1970s gave way to Gender and Development programs in the 1980s as aid organisations responded to the reality that unless the power structures within communities were integrated into proposed programs for rural land management change, women's roles might expand but their lives were not necessarily going to be any better. 
The incorporation of gender into natural resource management programs helped focus all the members of these communities on the socio-economic and power issues within their social milieu. Invariably, women and children were and still are likely to be the hungriest within communities, the ones most affected by ill health and most vulnerable to the horrors of war and natural disasters.

Recognising women's roles in managing or contributing to the production of food or protection and stewardship of land and water resources is different from enabling change within institutions or associated structures so opportunities and the quality of life for women improve. 
As a critical theorist and landscape sociologist, I am concerned with the daily practices of land management: what people do to change their management. It is more than establishing their perspective or representing other women's views in the community, though that happens too. It is more often about establishing different ways of 'doing', of assembling information, collaborating and participating in change within the organisation and networks in which they operate. 

Associate Professor Ruth Beilin is working in the Department of Resource Management and Geography in Melbourne School of Land and Environment. She is the Deputy Director of the Office of Environmental Programs and a co-coordinator of the Sustainable Cities Sustainable Regions.

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