8 Mar 2019

Meet the women inspiring change in the Mediterranean

In honour of International Women’s Day, we invited Awatef Abiadh to share her insight from interviews with motivated and brave women who lead on conservation projects in developing countries in the Mediterranean. Get ready to be inspired…

Awatef Abiadh trekking for fieldwork in France © Louis Marie Préau
Awatef Abiadh trekking for fieldwork in France © Louis Marie Préau
By Awatef Abiadh

Awatef is the Programme Officer for North Africa for the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund, CEPF, in the Mediterranean biodiversity hotspot.

Although women are the backbone of societies in developing countries, their role in biodiversity conservation remains modest in the Mediterranean countries of North Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans. Woman are obviously involved, but rarely take the place of a leader. To have success in conservation, often a woman here needs to fight to demonstrate that she deserves trust, something that I know all too well myself, having grown up in rural Tunisia where gender is restrictive. I am also convinced that the implications of gender imbalance is one of the problems limiting the sustainability of conservation projects because of the well-known overlap between conservation, development and livelihood concerns.

Working for an environmental civil society organisation often involves field trips, meetings with local people, discussions and decision-making – and in many of these countries men and women are not equal in this aspect. In Libya, for example, a woman cannot go to the field alone. She must have a "mahram" to accompany her – even her little brother is enough to give trust to all those who see her.

In Libya, women cannot go into the field alone, they need an accompanying mahram to earn trust

In Tunisia, field trips (whether as a volunteer or professional) have caused me many disagreements with my family, because ‘a girl who walks in the mountains with boys will have less chance of getting married.’ Marriage is seen as the ultimate objective of each girl, so she is expected to avoid any bad reputations. From a young age, women are intended to become good wives, which limits their field of action. Rare are women who act differently and rare are men who support this progression. Opinions and attitudes can also vary within the same country.

In 2009 I co-coordinated an eradication campaign of black rats on Zembretta island, Tunisia, to save native wildlife. I lived in a bungalow without a door for two months; I did not consider myself less skilled, and I did not experience any discrimination. On the other hand, a year later, I moved to the south of Tunisia with friends for an expedition. In the evening, while we were preparing our dinner, people from the village next door came to check who we are, and one of my friends said that I was his wife to earn their trust.

In honour of International Women’s Day, I interviewed inspiring woman who lead on conservation projects in our region, and discovered that I was not the only female conservationist noticing certain realities: wherever their origin, we saw inequality in available opportunities, and obstacles that require motivation and bravery to overcome. It is also worth thanking their families for being understanding and in supporting them in being different. Driven by a strong passion to work for the environment, these women have some great advice to give.

Thoraya Ouhiba

President, Oxygen Society, Libya

Thoraya's NGO was founded after the Libya revolution  © Awatef Abiadh

"I imagine Oxygen as the lungs for women to breathe."

For a long time, I was looking for a structure that works to conserve biodiversity and to improve environmental awareness. After the Libyan revolution, I was able to establish the Oxygen Society to foster conditions for improving environmental education in Libya. Day-to-day it involves conducting environmental workshops for waste management and its relationship to biodiversity for at least 80 teachers working in 23 primary schools.

It is challenging for women in Libya to work in the field or with local communities. The idea itself is not acceptable by family, colleagues or local people. A woman needs to travel in a group or with a “mahram” especially for the first contact with local communities. On the other hand, I need to show that I deserve this responsibility and achieve small actions in order to gain the trust of stakeholders.

It is a balance between overcoming the social pressure of having a strong personality without hurting the family reputation. As I cannot go alone to the field, I support partnerships and collaborations so we can go as a group. As it is very hard to integrate into ‘man world’ and be involved in decisions about civil society in Libya, I established the Oxygen Society to focus on training and awareness of women, and to promote equitable gender representation in environmental work, especially in field work. I imagine Oxygen as the lungs for women to breathe.

Find out more about conservation in Libya.

Aleksandra Bujaroska

Executive Director, Environmental Law Citizens' Association, "Front 21/42", North Macedonia

Aleksandra Bujaroska © Front 21/42

"There is apathy and underestimation that you can achieve change in society if you are a woman"

I was born and raised in the city of Ohrid – of Macedonia's only UNESCO World Natural and Cultural Heritage site; the movement towards nature preservation, respect and conservation is deeply woven in my awareness. My biggest achievement is using environmental law to demonstrate a change in Macedonian society – from apathy to bringing environmental policies onto decision makers’ radar.

There is even greater apathy and underestimation that you can achieve change in society if you are a woman. When I was younger and started the NGO, I was treated as a dreamer. It was a challenge to make my conservative male colleagues to take me seriously. In the conservation field, women are harder workers but not seen as leaders. To overcome these challenges, I needed to demonstrate my achievements and show that I deserved the trust of everyone. This involved changing my behaviour and clothes for a more serious appearance, and having a strong personality.

My advice: ignore ungrounded opinion, seek proof, document everything, and file a lawsuit :-)

Irene Tosti

Founder of The Women At Work Initiative (TWAWI) and Natural Alba, Albania

Irene chose instead to feature a photo of the rural Albanian women that her work supports © Attila Adam

"Rural women in Albania receive an education that makes them believe that they are worth less than a man"

On the top of Mount Kilimanjaro looking at a melting glacier, I realised that climate change exists. It was at that moment that I knew I wanted to work with Mother Nature and not against it. Albania is a country with a high level of biodiversity but a low level of environmental consciousness; it is the ideal place to work hard for conservation. I consider my biggest professional achievement as putting into practice my beliefs regarding sustainability.

Rural women in Albania receive an education that makes them believe that they are worth less than a man, living with this belief their entire life. Sometimes they can be treated like farm animals. We established TWAWI to empower rural women, to increase confidence in themselves and the key role they play in the community, and promote activities that help them gain a better understanding of the use of natural resources. We have restored a spring-water ecosystem and set up a business that sustainably cultivates and sells aromatic and medicinal plants.

As a former senior executive for a car company based in Singapore, I am used to being in command. But as a woman who now works in Albania, my word as a woman does not count as much as the word of a man. It is insulting for me. To overcome this, I must delegate men to do things for me that I could do alone very easily; it’s annoying, but it works for this type of society.

In my opinion younger rural women will not change their situation alone. They will succeed only if men will help. In order to do this, there is a need for a better school education, and good examples that change stereotypes. Older men have understood this here, and could be a good ally for younger women.

Muna Al Taq

PR & Communications Manager for RSCN (BirdLife in Jordan)

Muna Al Taq © RSCN

 "You have to know how to deal with different types of people"

After being inspired about nature by a presentation by RSCN when I was at school, now I work for RSCN and regularly represent them at international events, and in building relationships with sponsor companies.

At the beginning of my career, when I was working mostly in rural areas with local communities, it was quite hard to go to the field and involve local women in livelihood programmes, as their mentality was not to lead. Now, it has become much easier.

When I was the youngest manager, my challenge was to convey my ideas without offending my colleagues, for two reasons: they were men, and older than me. Culturally, it is not acceptable to receive orders from a woman in work. I have used different management styles with male colleagues.

I face the challenge progressively. I need to show that a woman in our country deserves respect through her personality, and through interactions with locals or with colleagues. You have to know how to deal with different types of people; especially when reaching out to local communities. I tried everything alone – from driving to field sites, to being part of tourism teams, to hiking trails, some of them with rappelling and climbing. I showed them that I can do it when I want to.

Another big challenge for me is how to ensure an equilibrium between my private life and my work – I think this is a challenge of all working mothers. I’m lucky to have a supportive family, and the support and appreciation from RSCN’s management always lead me to more successes.

Radhia Louhichi

Director of a public school and President of Réseau Enfants de la Terre (Earth Children Network, RET), Tunisia

Radhia Louhichi at a project in Tunisia © RET

"I try to join my work with my passion so I can focus on involving children in conservation"

I studied journalism and worked for over 25 years in the education sector as a teacher and director of school. Then I started to notice the degradation of our environment and the rarity of resources. At 45 years old, I decided to go back to university for a Masters in environmental communication. During my thesis, 30 pupils who were involved in the project became so enthusiastic that they launched a facebook group “Réseau Enfants de la Terre” – in just a few weeks the group had 4,000 members. This encouraged us to establish our association, RET, in 2011 to continue to focus efforts on the environmental education and awareness of young people – because they are our future.

A big challenge as a woman is to ensure balance between my work, my responsibilities in conservation and my family. I try to join my work with my passion so I can focus on involving children in conservation. This can save time for my family. But unless we have several new laws that support women in Tunisia, we will still have a patriarchal society where housekeeping tasks are the responsibility of a woman.

Natalia Boulad

Head of GIS Unit, The Conservation Monitoring Center/ RSCN (BirdLife Partner), Jordan

Natalia representing RSCN receiving a Green List award © RSCN

"I face the challenge of working in a very fast-paced field of technology"

I ended up working in this field as I had passion for conservation, and I also believed that GIS [Geographic Information System] could largely contribute to advancing conservation work in Jordan. I’ve contributed to transforming the use of GIS within the organisation from a traditional visualisation and map production tool, into an effective decision-support and planning tool, by developing the data analysis methods and models used by RSCN.

On a personal level, and as a mother of three, I face the challenge of trying to find balance between work and family demands. On a professional level, I face the challenge of working in a very fast-paced field of technology, and with the work load in a very dynamic organisation like RSCN, I have to create space for self-development and innovation.

I rely to a great extent on my family's support. RSCN also offers some kind of flexibility for working mothers, ensuring that flexibility does not affect their performance! I also make sure to keep myself informed of the latest GIS applications and trends in the field of conservation. The wide range of projects managed by RSCN helps expose me to this.

Patrícia Rendall Rocha

Sea Turtle Camp Coordinator, and now Communication Manager for Biosfera, Cabo Verde

Patrícia Rendall Rocha © Biosfera

“There are no privileges when you’re in the field.” 

Santa Luzia is an uninhabited desert island where we camp out to monitor and protect Endangered loggerhead turtles. I’m proud that our research has put this important nesting population “on the map” internationally. For many days it is only us and the fishermen on the island. We invited them to “teatime”, chatting every evening about everything, and I used these relaxing moments to get the conservation message out. There was a special moment when I realised that this was having good results.

“What are you doing here?!” the new fishermen asked me, “This place is not for girls.” It’s a joke that we women are tired of hearing. But before he had time to explain, another fisherman (who I’d known for some time) answered his friend: "She is one of us! She is the Queen of Santa Luzia. She knows this island like the back of one’s hand, and in a swimming competition she would beat you." It was at this moment that I noticed that I was no longer seen as the research scientist who was doing something they didn’t understand. But I was more of a field worker, out working hard at 4 am like them, and everything was OK!

Now, in meetings with the government the fishermen often request me as a spokesperson for their group. At other times I had to affirm my position, such as when they often said that I walked barefoot, or pushed the boat, like a boy. For them, this was a compliment. For us women, we know it’s not! And my answer is always: I work like a woman, that I am! And women can do everything as men do. There are no privileges when you’re in the field.

Sometimes I become more aggressive than I should be and take things to heart, like when people think they are superior because I am younger, or a woman, or because I’m black – or all three. It is a daily struggle but I continue to join the body of women who break the barriers, one brick at a time!

Watch an interview with Patrícia at work with turtles on Santa Luzia.

Patrícia watches a Loggerhead Turtle return to the ocean © Biosfera

This work is supported by the investment of the Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) in the Mediterranean. 

Find out more at www.birdlife.org/cepf-med

The Critical Ecosystem Partnership Fund (CEPF) is a joint initiative of l’Agence Française de Développement, Conservation International, the European Union, the Global Environment Facility, the Government of Japan, and the World Bank. A fundamental goal is to ensure civil society is engaged in biodiversity conservation.
CEPF is more than just a funding provider
A dedicated Regional Implementation Team (RIT) (expert officers on the ground) guides funding to the most important areas and to even the smallest of organisations, helps build civil society in the region, and shares learned lessons and best practices such as those featured in this booklet. In the Mediterranean Basin Biodiversity Hotspot, the RIT is entrusted to BirdLife International and its national Partners LPO and DOPPS.