As we have done since GRACE began, last week on March 8, the GRACE team celebrated International Women’s Day with our local community. This globally observed day is popular in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) with parades and events held across the region. In fact, according to GRACE staff, it is considered the “most important event of the year”. Women often dress in fabric cut from the same cloth as a sign of unity. The event is an opportunity to highlight the important role women play in their communities and also to underscore the unmet needs for women and girls. In DRC, those needs are great, as the country currently ranks 176th out of 189 countries on the United Nations’ Gender Inequality Index. This means DRC lags way behind on indicators of female empowerment, reproductive health, and economic status.

Procession of Katoyo and Kasugho women’s groups on International Women’s Day (photo: GRACE 2019).

What does this have to do with gorilla conservation? A growing body of evidence suggests that increasing the involvement of women in conservation can empower women and bring important benefits such as improving women’s health and increasing income opportunities. Women play integral roles in their communities and tend to be in charge of their children’s education and their family’s natural resource use. Thus involving women is essential for achieving positive conservation outcomes.

Female staff members during a computer skills class at GRACE (Photo: GRACE 2018)

Women have always played a critical role in GRACE. We employ hundreds of people each year for our various projects and women make up around 65% of this work force. Local women’s groups have also regularly sought out volunteer opportunities to help GRACE. For example, they help plant trees for our wood lot and erosion prevention initiatives and tend the GRACE farm that feeds the orphan gorillas. In 2018, 69% of people who participated in our education programs were also women, including the 145 girls in our youth conservation clubs.

Women volunteering on the GRACE farm (photo: GRACE 2018).

How does female involvement impact GRACE’s conservation objectives? 

In 2018, GRACE launched two pilot initiatives aimed at helping to conserve nearby Tayna Nature Reserve, a stronghold for around 300 wild Grauer’s gorillas as well as chimpanzees and other endangered species. Our aim was to address two threats to this habitat: local extraction of wood from the forest and small-scale hunting. The latter threat has been exacerbated by recent insecurity in the region.

To design and implement these projects, we engaged with women’s groups comprised of representatives from different sectors of society (e.g., church, market sellers) because they are trusted leaders in their communities. To address wood extraction, we worked with a local engineer to come up with a stove design that uses on average 47% less wood, can be made out of inexpensive locally available materials, and is easy to maintain. For more see our stove blog post.

To address small-scale hunting, we began a project to help women improve husbandry for guinea pigs. The rationale is that if a domestic source of protein is readily available, people may be less likely to go into the forest for food. Guinea pigs are hardy animals that reproduce quickly, and they are a desired protein source that has been raised successfully in this region for years. However, at the beginning of 2018, fewer than 25% of households that once had guinea pigs still had them due to looting by armed groups. In 2018, we trained 10 women to lead this project. These women will train future participants in raising guinea pigs using methods to ensure ideal welfare conditions for the animals, which should lead to better production as well. To date, 85 guinea pigs have been born as part of this program. For more see our guinea pig blog post.

The first cohort of female trainees for our guinea pig program (photo: GRACE 2018).

While GRACE helped design, fund, and measure the impacts of these projects, their success was largely dependent on the women’s groups. Women volunteered to participate in the programs then talked to their neighbors about their experiences. On the fuel-efficient stove project, they even made video testimonials and gave live demonstrations during International Women’s Day. In just the first year, we were able to install 60 stoves in a single village, saving an estimated 21,840 kg of wood. Without this leadership that is embedded within communities, the stove and guinea pig projects would have failed to get off the ground.

A member of women’s group demonstrate a fuel-efficient stove for other women (photo: GRACE 2017).

How does female involvement in conservation help women?

The promising conservation outcomes from our 2018 pilot stove and guinea pig work were also accompanied by positive outcomes for women and their families. Although our measures are qualitative at this stage, the impacts were very real to women. Participants in the stove project reported significant health improvements from having less smoke in their kitchens as well as time savings, since they required less wood and had to travel shorter distances to gather wood to meet their household needs. Freed-up time allows children to spend more time in school and women to focus on other more productive activities.

Participants in the guinea pig project reported that raising these animals brought new autonomy in household decision-making. For example, women reported that for larger livestock, such as goats, they cannot make decisions about selling them for income without consulting their husbands. But with guinea pigs, women are able to trade them at their discretion, something that is commonly done to pay school fees for children.

International Women’s Day 2019 has come and gone, but our programs will continue to focus on women. In 2019, we will begin to scale up both the stove and guinea pig projects in collaboration with the women’s groups to increase their impact. We believe in a future for gorillas built on community, and women will continue to play a vital role in creating a future where gorillas and people can both thrive.

GRACE staff members during International Women’s Day (photo: GRACE 2017).

About GRACE: Gorilla Rehabilitation and Conservation Education (GRACE) Center is the world’s only sanctuary for Grauer’s gorillas. The largest primate in the world, Grauer’s gorillas only live in war-torn eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. Their numbers have dropped by nearly 80% in the past 20 years due to heavy poaching. They are considered one of the 25 most endangered primates in the world with only 3,800 remaining. GRACE cares for 14 orphaned gorillas rescued from poachers and works to rehabilitate them so they can return to the wild. At GRACE the gorillas live in a single gorilla group that functions as a surrogate family and spend their days in 39 acres of forest. GRACE also partners with local communities on education and conservation initiatives to protect a critical population of wild gorillas living in Tayna Nature Reserve. For more about GRACE, visit: