MANY Zimbabweans mistakenly think that the terms "gender" and "woman" are synonyms and can be used inter-changeably as they refer to the same thing.
That is an understandable mistake, but not excusable.Gender and woman are two asymmetrical words that may be linked, but neither means nor refers to the same thing.
A woman or girl, like a man or boy, is a two-legged thinking being built by God Almighty from the dust of the earth, into whose nostrils received the breath of life from the Creator.
The term "gender" refers to the socially-constructed differences between male and female, according to the World Bank.
Unlike "sex", there is nothing biological about gender.
This definition clearly separates "gender" from "woman" and vice-versa.
Attempts to use the two terms as representing one are not only misleading, but also throw into question the gender sensitive or equity approach to climate response, whether strategies should be specially designed to protect the "gender" or the "woman", neglecting men as though the impacts were any different.
Now, as Zimbabwe prepares to implement strategies that protect and enhance sustainable forest management through the UN's Reduced Emissions from Deforestation and Forest Degradation (REDD+) scheme, unambiguous lines should be drawn between "gender" and "women", as far as the non-carbon benefits of REDD+ are concerned.
The mitigation potential in REDD+ is obvious, but considering the manifold functions of forests for both rural and urban livelihoods, the process also contains significant challenges and risks, one of them the "gender" and "women" trap.
The UN says a strategy that mainstreams gender is one that makes "women's as well as men's concerns and experiences an integral dimension of the design, implementation, monitoring and evaluation of policies and programmes in political, economic and societal spheres so that women and men benefit equally and inequity is not perpetuated."
Involving women in forest resource management will undoubtedly yield improved REDD+ benefits, as they are perceived to be the primary users of timber, especially for energy purposes.
Women in Africa have traditionally been regarded as protectors of forests "due to their knowledge and dependence on forest resources for food, fuel and medicines."
Men have tended to play a greater role in extracting timber and non-timber forest products for commercial purposes. However, this is changing.
No longer a women's only job
The historical structural and cultural inequalities against women in Zimbabwe are well-known.
They have been recited at every forum since pre-school. Without doubt, they require urgent correction. However, in relation to REDD+, the perception that women are the primary on-foot long distance firewood collectors has been sufficiently perpetuated and it is now surrogately accepted as truth.
The impression usually painted by foreign-funded development agencies is of a generation of patriarchal Zimbabwean men intoxicating themselves to foolishness at the crowded village brewery, legs crossed, before arriving home to harass the exhausted wife.
Except the social oral mill, which savages the male's domestic role, these misleading assertions have not stood the scientific test.
Indeed, wood is the source of 53 percent of Zimbabwe's energy.
Some women travel long distances to collect firewood, most times carrying it on their heads.
However, in most rural villages countrywide, men also collect firewood, in vast quantities, from faraway lands, for use in the home while women stay at home.
The scotch-cart, a two-wheeled ox or donkey drawn trailer, common in rural Zimbabwe, is widely used by men for this purpose.
The same is true for collecting drinking water.
Preliminary findings from a baseline survey by Bio-Hub Trust, a local developmental environment NGO, is expected to disprove, by some margin, the widespread misbelief that women bore the firewood burden more than men.
The study, to be published later in the year, will show that while women remained in the majority for those people that rely on forests for energy, men were also active firewood collectors for domestic use, contrary to existing beliefs.
"There is a general assumption that women are more impacted from forests-led issues (than men,)" Mr Abbie Jiri, a REDD+ expert with Bio-Hub Trust said by telephone on Thursday.
"This is mostly related to firewood collection, in terms of the distances people walk, women carrying 14kg-18kg of firewood on their heads.
However, the evidence we are getting from our scientific study is that where men are, there tends to be a lot of firewood."
The research was conducted through questionnaires and zeroed-in on wood usage within the household, asking questions such as, "who collects the firewood?"
Mr Jiri said: "Unlike what people say in most of these workshops, it is not the women only (who collect firewood). It is also children and the husbands, but it differs from family to family.
Generally, it is no longer a women's only job, collecting firewood."
Getting gender right
Gender sensitive REDD+ is crucial in implementing effective and efficient REDD+ strategies, and achieving sustainable development, Mr Jiri told a climate change and gender conference in Harare last week.
"Capturing views, experiences and priorities of both men and women has been identified as a main contributor to success of REDD+," he said adding this "leads to increased understanding of how women and men use forests and participate in the forest sector."
Getting gender right will be important in the successful implementation of any REDD+ projects and programmes in Zimbabwe.
A good policy will be one that is practical and inclusive, able to make a clear distinction between gender, women and men.
It should examine the role that men and women play in forestry, the benefits drawn and challenges faced before designing and implementing strategies that work for all, addressing past, current and future gender imbalances.
Ignoring sensitivity to gender in REDD+, Jiri said, will perpetuate inequality in land and resource use rights, limit the sustainability and effectiveness of outcomes and continue the marginalisation of women in decision-making in forest management.
A 2011 report by the Indonesia-based Centre for International Forestry Research (CIFOR) showed that effective forest management in Africa was achieved through women and men working together.
"We already know that men and women use the forest in different ways but their relationship with the forest is constantly changing," said Ms Esther Mwangi, co-author of CIFOR's International Forestry Review.
"With climate change, traditional gender-based roles are becoming more fluid, which is creating opportunities for women to engage in activities that not only improve livelihoods, but allow them to better adapt."
However, despite the increasing recognition of the role that women play, gender biases still marginalise women and their participation in community forestry.
Zimbabwe is seeking to follow in the footsteps of other African countries such as Mozambique and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, which have implemented successful REDD+ strategies.
REDD+ aims to make forests more valuable standing than they would be when cut down, by creating a financial value for the carbon stored in trees.
Once this carbon is assessed and quantified, the final phase of REDD involves developed countries paying developing countries carbon offsets for their standing forests, says the UN.
Zimbabwe's forests generate a wide range of both timber and non-timber products, sustaining over 7 000 jobs.
Nearly 21 million hectares of the forests land are indigenous trees and 156 000 hectares under plantations, according the Environment Ministry.
The UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation says the country has 15,6 million hectares of forests and that 327 000 hectares are lost to agriculture, wood harvesting or fire each year.
God is faithful.