Why more women should be included in the leadership of Virunga National Park (commentary)
- Since 2014, the number of female park guards serving in Virunga National Park, located in war-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been gradually increasing. Today, 29 women serve in the ranks of this 731-strong force.
- There has been a flurry of international media attention to the women who chose the ranger profession. But so far, nobody has looked at how the presence of these women affects the functioning of the ranger force, and the relations between the park and the population living in its vicinity.
- While gender equality is not a guarantee for improving park-people relations, we believe the integration of women in Virunga’s administrative and security structures needs to be reinforced, in particular at the higher echelons. Gender equality is not only of inherent importance, but — as our research indicates — also corresponds to a strong demand among the population living around the park.
- This post is a commentary. The views expressed are those of the author, not necessarily Mongabay.
Since 2014, the number of female park guards serving in Virunga National Park, located in war-ridden eastern Democratic Republic of the Congo, has been gradually increasing. Today, 29 women serve in the ranks of this 731-strong force.
There has been a flurry of international media attention to the women who chose the ranger profession. News reporting generally zooms in on their heroic nature, the dangers and hardships they face, and the para-military ranger training they passed, which requires extreme physical fitness. So far, nobody has looked at how the presence of these women affects the functioning of the ranger force, and the relations between the park and the population living in its vicinity.
In the wake of the adoption of United Nations Security Council Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace, and Security, there has been a flurry of scholarly and policy attention to integrating women into law enforcement and (para)military organizations. Female uniformed personnel are held to be more attentive to the needs of women and children and are believed to be easier to approach by civilians, in particular women. This would improve relations between security forces and local populations.
However, a growing body of research shows that these assumptions are based on essentialist views of women, and do not always hold, especially not when patriarchal organizational cultures are not changed.
Similarly, research we recently conducted in the Virunga area demonstrates that integrating women into the ranger force is not a panacea for resolving the deep running tensions between the park and the population. While the presence of female rangers is generally welcomed, few people we interviewed believe that they make a difference for the conflicts pitting them against the park. What’s more, reflecting deep-seated gender problems within nature conservation, women continue to be under-represented at higher levels of decision-making in the ranger force and Virunga’s management.
While gender equality is not a guarantee for improving park-people relations, we believe the integration of women in Virunga’s administrative and security structures needs to be reinforced, in particular at the higher echelons. Gender equality is not only of inherent importance, but — as our research indicates — also corresponds to a strong demand among the population living around the park.
We base our argument on focus groups conducted in January 2019 with men, women, and youth — the majority of whom were farmers — in 11 villages located in the territories of Rutshuru and Nyiragongo. Focus groups were complemented by interviews with key informants, including local chiefs, civil society actors, and a park representative. In total we contacted 303 persons.
From our research, it emerged that few people have actually interacted with female park guards. The majority of the female rangers are deployed to escort tourists and guard installations, and remain at the level of the park headquarters in Rumangabo, or at the sub-station of the central sector in Rwindi. Only a few are deployed to patrol posts in remote areas, and therefore enter into contact with the population. Locals’ ideas about female park guards therefore mostly rest on perceptions, rather than experiences.
Local perceptions of female park guards
In the focus groups, men and women alike talked about the integration of women into Virunga’s ranger force as something positive. The ideas that people articulated around female park guards roughly correspond to two discourses that are often invoked to justify women’s inclusion: the first is an instrumentalist discourse, which highlights that integrating women will improve performance, effectiveness, or outcomes; the second is a rights-based discourse, which emphasizes that women have an inherent right to equal representation, regardless of whether that would improve the performance of an institution.
Following an instrumentalist discourse, many of our interlocutors believed that having women in the ranger force would reduce the chances of ill or harsh behavior by rangers towards civilians, in particular women. Women often enter the park to cultivate crops such as manioc or maize, or to collect firewood (kuni) or sticks to support bean plants (mitegemeo). This exposes them to the risk of being intercepted by park guards. During some focus groups, women said that those who are intercepted are subjected to harsh treatment, including beatings. While we cannot substantiate cases of rape by park guards, in a few villages in Nyiragongo territory, where relations with the park are particularly bad, women believed that the guards sometimes also engage in sexual violence.
A female ranger in Virunga National Park. Photo Credit: Joseph Tsongo.
Female guards, many people thought, would never tolerate such behavior. As a woman in Mujoga said: “We would like the number of female park guards to increase, as they can never accept that another woman is forced to undress.” A woman in Katwa confirmed this idea: “If there were more female park guards, there will be less rape.” Furthermore, many of the women we interviewed believed that female rangers would be more lenient in general. In the words of one focus group participant in Mujoga: “Women have roho na huruma [literally: a soul full of pity]. They could more easily accept that a woman enters the park to collect sticks.”
The rights-based discourse, which was shared equally strongly by men and women, was mostly reflected in remarks that women should be rangers as there is now parité(gender equality) in Congo, and women should therefore be equally represented in all state services. A man in Vitshumbi commented: “Women should be in the ranger force as there is parité according to the constitution.” The rights-based discourse was also strongly articulated by customary chiefs, commonly associated with conservative views about gender inequality. For instance, the village chief of Nyamilima said: “Women now have the right to do this work, they are also capable and there are also women in the military and police.”
While the majority of our interlocutors welcome female park guards, a few expressed their doubts, in particular whether female park guards actually behave better towards civilians. A woman in Nyamilima commented: “They have no mercy neither for men nor for women.” Similarly, in Mujoga, a youngster said: “Women are more evil than men, they are more dangerous.”
Concerns about female guards often appeared grounded in people’s experiences with or perceptions of female military personnel or female rebel soldiers. As research on Congolese female army personnel shows, these women are often considered to be of low standing and low morals, being cruel and mean, in particular towards other women. One woman in Kiwanja commented in relation to Chantal, an infamous commander of a Rwandan rebel group: “Women are meaner than men. Therefore the conflicts will not diminish. Chantal, she could even throw a child in front of a car without any pity.”
No silver bullet for resolving conflicts
The idea that women can be crueler than men makes people doubt that female park guards can help resolve the many conflicts between park rangers and the local population. These conflicts center on contested park boundaries, the right to enter the park to collect firewood or sticks, and disputes over wild animals destroying people’s harvests, among other issues.
To many of our interlocutors, it remains unclear how female guards can make a difference in these conflicts. As a woman in Nyamilima argued: “The conflict is around the park boundaries, for that it does not matter whether the park guards are men or women.” Men in Vitshumbi emphasized that the lack of impact was compounded by female rangers’ low status: “Biko chini [they are low in the hierarchy]… not decision-makers. Maybe when they also take the decisions.”
Indeed, it was generally believed that female guards, given their low ranks, had little influence on decision-making. In Katwa, a woman said: “Even if there were women, they would obey the orders given, also to beat us, so there would be no difference in behavior.” Another often-expressed concern was that women working in the same organization have the same ideology as men. For a man in Nyamilima: “Having women as park guards cannot diminish conflicts. The problem is the ideology. When the ideology is bad, there won’t be any change.”
Working towards gender equality in conservation leadership
Mirroring a growing body of research on integrating women in security forces, our findings show that we should be cautious about the positive effects of integrating women in Virunga’s ranger force — in particular as long as organizational cultures do not change, and women are not equally represented within the higher ranks. Moreover, we should avoid essentializing discourses about women as inherently more peaceful or more lenient.
A key finding of our research is that many people in the Virunga area believe that having women in the ranger force is a right — regardless of how it affects rangers’ work. Yet we concur with our interlocutors that women should also be represented in the higher ranks, as well as the park’s management structure.
There is a notorious lack of female leadership in nature conservation, which has historically been imbued with patriarchal values. Donors supporting nature conservation should urgently acknowledge and address this gender problem — not least as women generally represent half of the population of conservation-affected areas.
• Baaz, M. E., & Stern, M. (2011). Whores, men, and other misfits: Undoing ‘feminization’in the armed forces in the DRC. African affairs, 110(441), 563-585. doi:10.1093/afraf/adr044
• Jones, M. S., & Solomon, J. (2019). Challenges and supports for women conservation leaders. Conservation Science and Practice, e36. doi:10.1111/csp2.36
• Wilén, N., & Heinecken, L. (2018). Regendering the South African army: Inclusion, reversal and displacement. Gender, Work & Organization, 25(6), 670-686. doi:10.1111/gwao.12257
Dr. Judith Verweijen is a Lecturer in International Security at the University of Sussex. Judith’s research is situated at the intersection of political ecology and conflict studies. It examines the interplay between violence, conflict and armed mobilization around natural resources. She focuses on eastern DRC, where she has conducted extensive field research since 2010.
Janvier Murairi Bakihanaye is the President of the Association for the Development of Farmers’ Initiatives (ASSODIP) based in Goma, in eastern DRC. He has worked for over a decade on human rights issues related to the exploitation of natural resources, anti-slavery and prisoners’ rights, both as activist and researcher. Most recently, his work has focused on roadblocks and socio-economic conditions in mining sites and conservation areas. For his work on Anti-Slavery, Janvier was awarded the Roger N. Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award 2016.
Dr. Esther Marijnen is a postdoctoral researcher at the Conflict Research Group (University of Ghent) and is affiliated with the Center for Public Authority and International Development (CPAID) based at London School of Economics (LSE). Her research focuses on violent conflict, nature conservation and public authority from a political ecology perspective. Currently she is working on the specificities of nature-society relations in times of war. Esther has conducted fieldwork in eastern DRC since 2013.