Developing guidelines to operationalize women’s inclusion: Simplifying data without losing complexity


by Kristen Evans and Iliana Monterroso | August 23, 2021

In forest and natural resource management, it seems like we are seeing multi-stakeholder forums (MSFs) everywhere, from climate change finance to local land use decision-making. MSFs aspire to be spaces for engaging diverse groups in policymaking, decision-making, and consultations through meetings, workshops, and events. However, evidence shows that women are often left out of discussions around forest or land use issues under the presumption that this is men’s domain. This means that, at best, MSFs’ decisions and discussions may not reflect women’s priorities, and, at worst, that MSFs reinforce existing gender inequalities.

Mapping workshop in Nakong, Kassena Nankana District - Ghana. Photo by Axel Fassio/CIFOR

Constraints to women’s participation in MSFs

So, how can we level the field for women in the decision-making process? First, it’s important to identify the main constraints.

The challenges of social inclusion are wide-ranging. The reasons for women’s low representation in MSFs often start with a lack of mobility: no transport/means/support from one’s spouse to travel or attend the meetings virtually. From the cultural perspective, in many places, social norms discourage women from speaking in front of men. Many women naturally fear male backlash if they transgress those norms. Women are also often overburdened by household duties, including childcare, which keep them away from attending the meetings. And very often, women simply lack confidence to engage in MSFs due to a lack of knowledge and/or experience.

Additional constraints to meaningful participation may emerge from the way MSFs are organized. For instance, lack of translation to local languages or lack of facilitation focused on including all voices may prevent women (as well as men) from productive participation. MSFs – which are typically organized by NGOs, donors, multi-lateral initiatives, or government agencies – might not have enough women and members of other under-represented groups among their own organizers or executive committees. Some challenges also stem from a broader societal context, such as difficulty of strengthening women’s organizations and networks to ensure their active engagement in spaces.

A practical guide to improve inclusion

With these challenges in mind, we set out to develop a practical guide that would not only identify the obstacles, but also present tools for improving inclusion. Literature review and interviews with practitioners on the ground allowed us to distill best practices and lessons learned from including under-represented groups in various multi-stakeholder initiatives. By understanding what has worked in the past, we aimed to synthesize tools that could be successfully applied in the future. Furthermore, it was important for us to look at how different identities can intersect, for examples, understanding the unique challenges faced by a woman who is also Indigenous.

We put together a team with experience in both research and implementation in different country and regional contexts, making sure to have a balanced representation of women and men.

We started with a literature review that built upon a database of 800+ articles from the synthesis review by Sarmiento Barletti et al. (2020a). We narrowed those down to 155 articles relevant to community forestry, climate finance mechanisms, such as Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and forest Degradation (REDD+), participatory conservation of protected areas, and other forest management issues.

We were particularly interested in identifying “success factors” -- those attitudes, actions, people, or practices that contributed to greater inclusion in MSFs. After synthesizing those factors from the literature, we interviewed 61 practitioners working with women and men on forest resource issues at the community, national, and global levels in Latin America and the Carribbean, Africa, and Asia to identify additional success factors.

Despite the diverse perspectives in literature and practice, we were able to identify specific factors that favor inclusion of women (35 success factors) and Indigenous Peoples (40 success factors). The success factors were organized thematically and grouped into five “action arenas” where MSF organizers and implementers can work to operationalize inclusion (Figure 1).

Figure 1: Five action arenas where MSFs can effect change

Tools to operationalize inclusion

Based on these findings, we developed 2 tools to help MSF organizers operationalize inclusion. For instance, the tool “Mobilize the structures” provides step-by-step guidance in creating goals and strategies to support inclusion. See Figure 2 for an example of an output.

Figure 2: Example of output from Tool 1 "Mobilize the structures”

The tool “Enhance capacity” provides a guided approach for the MSF to use the success factors to assess capacities internally and externally and identify potential for improvement. Figure 3 provides an example of a set of success factors related to women in the action arena, “Organize for inclusion.”

Figure 3: Example of several success factors for the inclusion of women  in the tool “Enhance capacity”

The tools are described step-by-step in Getting it right: A guide to inclusion in MSFs.

Rights-based approach

Achieving true inclusion is a complex undertaking requiring conserted efforts from multiple stakeholders. Attendance is not equivalent to effective participation. Based on our analysis and reflections, we argue that for the multi-stakeholder forums to be meaningful and efficient, organizers need to follow a rights-based approach, i.e. recognize that stake-holders are also right-holders and as such should be fully engaged in the decision process. This perspective was supported by many of our interviewees who highlighted the need for MSFs to take a rights-based approach to increase the accountability and responsibilities of organizers to include under-represented and marginalized people in a meaningful way. Likewise, experiences in various MSFs (Hamm 2001; Broberg and Sano 2018; Nelson and Dorsey 2018) reveal that a rights-based approach can lead to more effective, efficient, and equitable outcomes by developing capacities of local actors, strengthening social cohesion, and institutionalizing democratic processes.

Concluding thoughts and next steps

The scope of the project and the information it generated was at times challenging for the team to distill and simplify without losing nuance and complexity. In that process, we experimented with multiple ways of grouping the success factors, before deciding on the action arenas and building the theory of change. Many conversations and working sessions with team members were necessary to get to that point.

Some of the greatest insights came from the interviews, where we learned of successes and lessons that did not make it into the literature. It was a reminder that – just like successful MSFs – research needs to be iterative and collaborative.

MSFs present unique opportunities to make under-represented people more influential and achieve changes in broader arenas. We see these tools as a first step toward a goal of greater empowerment and inclusion in MSFs, and also in decision-making spaces in society at large. Next steps include developing a training module and translations of the guide into Spanish, French, and Bahasa and adapting them to other under-represented groups, such as pastoralists, Afro-descendants, LGBTQ people, disabled people, the elderly and youth. We also hope that other researchers and MSF organizers will help refine, adapt, and improve these approaches as we all work together to “get it right.”

Further reading

Sarmiento Barletti JP, Larson AM, Cisneros N, Heise N, Liswanti N, Mariño H and Tamara A. 2020a. How are we doing? A tool to reflect on the process, progress and priorities of your multistakeholder forum. Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

Sarmiento Barletti JP, Larson AM, Hewlett C and Delgado D. 2020b. Designing for engagement: A realist synthesis review of how context affects the outcomes of multistakeholder forums on land use and/or land-use change. World Development 127:104753

Evans K, Monterroso I, Ombogoh D, Liswanti N, Tamara A, Mariño H, Barletti JPS, Larson AM. 2021. Getting it right: a guide to improve inclusion in multi-stakeholder forums. Bogor, Indonesia: Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR).

UN, 2016. Leaving no one behind: The imperative of inclusive development, Report on the World Social Situation. New York: United Nations.


Broberg, Morten, and Hans-Otto Sano. 2018. “Strengths and Weaknesses in a Human Rights-Based Approach to International Development – an Analysis of a Rights-Based Approach to Development Assistance Based on Practical Experiences.” The International Journal of Human Rights 22 (5): 664–80.

Hamm, Brigitte I. 2001. “A Human Rights Approach to Development.” Human Rights Quarterly 23: 1005.

Nelson, Paul J., and Ellen Dorsey. 2018. “Who Practices Rights-Based Development? A Progress Report on Work at the Nexus of Human Rights and Development.” World Development 104 (C): 97–107. 

Sarmiento Barletti, Juan Pablo, Anne M. Larson, Christopher Hewlett, and Deborah Delgado. 2020. “Designing for Engagement: A Realist Synthesis Review of How Context Affects the Outcomes of Multi-Stakeholder Forums on Land Use and/or Land-Use Change.” World Development 127: 104753.


Kristen Evans has worked as a consultant at the Center for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) since 2004 in projects in Bolivia, Nicaragua, Vietnam and Ghana, in projects focusing on multi-stakeholder platforms, gender, tenure, forest restoration, collaborative monitoring and participatory methods.

Iliana Monterroso is Scientist with the Equity, Gender, Justice & Tenures team at CIFOR. She is also the co-coordinator of Gender and Social Inclusion Research. Her research focuses on gender, tenure, collective rights, environmental governance and socio-environmental conflicts predominantly in Latin America.

This story is part of the EnGendering Data blog which serves as a forum for researchers, policymakers, and development practitioners to pose questions, engage in discussions, and share resources about promising practices in collecting and analyzing sex-disaggregated data on agriculture and food security. If you are interested in writing for EnGendering Data, please contact the blog editor, Dr. Katrina Kosec.