International Women’s Day is a global day to celebrate women’s achievements and it takes place on March 8 each year.
This year, Star Media Group is marking the whole month of March as “International Women’s Month”.
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One of the prevailing mindsets in our communities is that men should lead the discussions, says Umi A’Zuhrah Abdul Rahman, who works closely with Orang Asli communities.
“I usually bring along a male colleague for meetings until I become a familiar face and the communities are comfortable working with me directly.”
Umi is WWF-Malaysia’s Senior Community Engagement and Education Officer for its Peninsular Malaysia Terrestrial Conservation Programme. As a female who travels to field sites, Umi observes that her male colleagues have an easier time camping in the forest.
“They can relieve themselves anywhere they want to,” she laughs. “But every time nature calls, I have to make sure I am strategically covered by bushes!”
However, Umi’s biggest challenge was not privacy but conducting social surveys in 19 Orang Asli villages in the sweltering heat of 2015’s Ramadan period. With only one boat and one four-wheel-drive vehicle available, she had to shuttle a team of 13 to the villages daily for a month. Some developed a mild fever due to the heat and long hours.
To make matters worse, a wild elephant was spotted close to their base camp. Luckily, Orang Asli villagers nearby alerted them so they managed to build fires and make loud noises to scare it off.
“That harrowing experience really drove home the importance of working together with communities to reduce Human-Elephant Conflict (HEC),” Umi reminisces.
“Furthermore, these villages are far from towns; they can’t get authorities to help in time whenever an elephant appears. So it’s important that we build their understanding of such conflicts so they can handle it effectively.”
KL forest girl
Besides working with communities to reduce HEC, WWF-Malaysia also engages businesses such as oil palm plantations in Sabah, where Borneo elephants have been known to roam due to their shrinking forest habitat.
The work is undertaken by the Sabah Terrestrial Conservation Programme, currently led by its Deputy Manager and Interim Programme Leader, Julia Ng. Like her colleague Umi, Ng also disappears into isolated areas from time to time for work.
“My parents are used to it by now. It makes the time we get to spend together much more special,” she shares.
Initially, Ng’s parents were not so supportive of her animal-loving ways. As a young girl living in Kuala Lumpur, she would constantly beg them for extra pocket money to buy food for stray puppies that she had rescued.
As an adult, that tenacity has helped her communicate convincing proposals to donors and conservation partners, aided by the technical input from her 30-strong team.
“Sometimes, I wish I were a man so I could hike faster in the forest and carry heavier loads,” Ng chuckles. “But women are better at communications, multi-tasking, and empathy. These are much-needed skills for effective conservation in Malaysia”.
As a young female leader in a field dominated by males, Ng faces opposition from men who do not take her inputs seriously. She says it’s not an isolated issue.
“I am proud to lead a team of mostly female officers who are brave, intelligent and committed to the cause,” she testifies. “They don’t have it easy. In fact, they have to work harder to prove their worth to sceptical outsiders.
Sexism is not the biggest challenge in Ng’s career. Instead, it’s the balance and tug of war between conservation and economic development.
“If we conserve forests, we guarantee our supply of clean air and water ,” Ng explains. “We can’t see the air that we breathe, and the water we use usually comes from pipes, so a lot of people can’t make the connection between fresh air and water with healthy forests.”
“But if you talk about bulldozing forests to make way for roads and development, a lot of people will say it’s a good thing as the roads will link remote places with towns, schools, clinics and therefore improve the well-being of the people.”
Ng believes that conservationists need to read extensively on current issues and try to understand where the other side is coming from.
“It’s important that we also look at the other side of the coin,” she says. “We must remain objective and present the right facts when negotiating with different people.”
Bold for change
“Be careful when you travel for work, especially since you are a woman” – this well-meaning but patronising advice was often dispensed to Joannie Jomitol, WWF-Malaysia’s Kudat Team Leader for its Marine Programme.
Her job is to listen to, and engage seaside communities in northern Sabah in marine conservation, and that includes dealing with folk who regularly do fish bombing. (This is a common, though illegal, way to catch much more fish in Sabah over the short term. But over the long term, it destroys coral reefs and fish habitats, and slashes income for fishermen).
“I always take it as a challenge, as in, ‘Oh, you think I can’t do this? I’ll show you that I can’,” said this Sabahan with a wink.
Sporting her trademark straw hat, she is a familiar figure in the port town of Kudat. One of the biggest challenges is that community engagement takes time to bear results.
“Building relationships is a long-term game. Sometimes it takes more than a generation to change a community’s mindset,” she shared.
“Some communities also have the ‘What’s in it for me?’ mentality but you can’t show the conservation benefits immediately. For example, if they stop fish bombing, the fish stock won’t replenish overnight. Nature needs time to heal”.
Elsewhere in the world, there have been prominent women in conservation.
Leakey’s Angels were the founding mothers of primatology (the study of apes, monkeys, lemurs etc, all trained by anthropologist Louis Leakey). Jane Goodall, Dian Fossey and Biruté Galdikas are famous for their studies of chimpanzees, gorillas and orangutans respectively. All these bold women made amazing discoveries that forever changed our perception of these primates.
Such illustrious careers were not without obstacles. Fossey was forced out of her research area during Congo’s civil war, Galdikas worked with traumatised orphaned orangutans in Indonesia, while young Goodall was only allowed to travel to her study site in Tanzania if she came accompanied by her mother.
So what does it take to raise a girl to become a conservationist? For Joannie, encouraging perseverance is a must.
“My family used to suggest that I quit and become a teacher instead because they assumed that working for an NGO is not a financially stable position,” she laughed. “But over time, they saw how passionate I am about my work, so in the end, the suggestions stopped.”
Umi advises aspiring female conservationists to share their passion with like-minded people.
“Since high school, I’ve been interested in people and culture. When I started working in WWF-Malaysia, my senior colleagues opened my eyes to the importance of getting community support for our conservation efforts”.
Ng believes we need more women leading conservation in Malaysia.
“We need our girls to grow into bold, young women who are capable of driving change, so our society needs to start seeing them as potential leaders and groom them as such.”
Ng’s parting words certainly resonate with the campaign theme of this year’s International Women’s Day celebration, which is “Be Bold for Change”. – WWF-Malaysia
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