Empowering women in conservation

By Trang Nguyen, founder and Executive Director of WildAct

As a woman working in wildlife conservation in Vietnam, it may (or may not) be surprising to hear that I have experienced gender inequality in the workplace. I had brushed it aside in the past as there was always “something more important to do.” Until last year, when another woman working in conservation told me something so shocking that I decided to take action through WildAct, an NGO I founded in 2015.

WildAct has started a new programme this year called Empowering Women in Conservation. As I describe below, the programme aims to protect female conservationists in Vietnam from Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV), which can be defined as any act that is perpetrated against a person’s will based on gender norms and unequal power relationships. 

Trang Nguyen, founder and Executive Director of WildAct, in Cambodia during her CLP internship in 2014. Photo credit: Trang Nguyen.


First, let me describe my journey up to this point. Growing up in Vietnam, I witnessed the terrible harm done to animals for the illegal wildlife trade and I swore I would do everything I could to protect them. One of my earliest steps towards this goal was my CLP internship with FFI’s Cambodia Programme: Marine, Flagship Species and the University Capacity Building Project in 2014.

During my internship, I became passionate about changing people’s attitudes and behaviours towards wildlife, so I founded WildAct, an NGO based in Hanoi, Vietnam.

One of WildAct’s first major activities was to deliver two short-courses, Combating the Illegal Wildlife Trade and Captive Animal Welfare, in collaboration with the University of Vinh. These courses are offered to Vietnamese Masters students and early-career conservationists, as well as to graduates in other fields who are thinking about pursuing a career in wildlife conservation.

The six-week courses involve two weeks of lectures, as well as a four-week placement at an NGO or a research institute focusing on a conservation issue in Vietnam. Many of our trainees have secured full-time jobs within Vietnam’s conservation sector.

Although the success of our trainees was fantastic news for conservation, it was later distressing to learn that some of them have been suffering from different degrees of Sexual and Gender-Based Violence (SGBV) in the workplace—mostly while doing fieldwork, but even in the office. As soon as I heard about this, I decided that WildAct must do something to help.

Gender-based violence in conservation

It all started when one of our graduates told me she had experienced sexual harassment while working in the field for the first time. She mentioned it to her colleagues, but they shrugged it off as normal behaviour that was to be expected. Finding no support from her peers, she was considering quitting her dream career in conservation just as it was starting.

To hear this was really concerning. Was WildAct encouraging young women to work in a sector where they would be unsafe? I felt we had to support them and provide a safer and better working environment. So, this year, we kick-started the new Empowering Women in Conservation programme to support female conservationists and benefit both Vietnamese and foreign colleagues.

However, this is a very new topic in Vietnam. As yet, no organisation has performed any research into the working environment for female conservationists in our country. Added to this, all of us at WildAct are biologists with no experience in dealing with gender-related issues in the workplace.

After a few months of writing to different organisations and bodies both within and outside Vietnam, including several embassies, we finally had a breakthrough. We were introduced to CARE Vietnam, whose aims include ending SGBV against women in ethnic minority groups and those who work in agriculture.

A female volunteer for WildAct holding the organisation’s badge. Photo credit: Trang Nguyen.


Supporting female conservationists in Vietnam

In collaboration with CARE, and supported by the Alongside Wildlife Foundation and the J. van Walraven Fund, our new Empowering Women in Conservation programme includes the following activities:

  • Conducting surveys with both males and females working in the field in Vietnam to understand more about the situations and contexts in which SGBV occurs.
  • Designing a series of workshops for both men and women working in conservation to raise awareness about SGBV, and provide advice on preventive measures and how to support colleagues who are experiencing SGBV.
  • Inviting NGOs and government bodies to review their own policies regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. This means defining the term and the type of behaviour involved, as well as defining ‘workplace’ in a way that includes fieldwork.
  • Collaborating with other NGOs and government bodies to produce guidelines focused on SGBV prevention that considers the complex social and cultural context in Vietnam, while ensuring these policies are not ignored.

We also aim to create a Women in Wildlife Conservation Network in Vietnam, where women can share experiences and give each other support and advice. Along with this, we will establish a telephone hotline that women can use to report SGBV and receive help from professionals.

Building a better future for women in conservation

I used to believe that the long-term protection of threatened species was almost entirely dependent on increasing conservation capacity. Now I realize that this is only laying the foundations, and that a myriad of other factors make up the bricks and mortar. Without adequately protecting the conservationists we train, all of the work by WildAct and that of other capacity-building initiatives will be in vain. We hope our actions to support women in Vietnam will encourage more NGOs in other countries to do the same, so we can continue to empower the conservation leaders that will ultimately help save our planet’s precious wildlife.

About the author

Trang is a truly inspiring early-career conservation leader in Vietnam. In addition to being a member of the CLP Alumni Network, Trang has an MPhil in Conservation Leadership & Management and a PhD in Biodiversity Management. She is the founder and Executive Director of WildAct and was recently listed in the Forbes Asia 30Under30 – Social Entrepreneurs 2020.