Horticulture helps Palestinian women feed families
Drip irrigation networks and "grey water" treatment units ensure fruit and vegetable production even during water scarcities of the hot summer months.
Agriculture plays an important role in the Palestinian economy and household food security in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. In 2005, the agriculture sector supported some 14 000 private enterprises and provided employment for more than 135 000 people.
Recently, however, a combination of factors – tighter restrictions on the movement of people and goods, more restricted access to land, economic recession, the financial crisis faced by the Palestinian Authority and rising prices of agricultural inputs – has seriously threatened food security and led to increased levels of unemployment and poverty.
Because nearly 65% of agricultural work is done by women, a recently-completed FAO project funded by Norway aimed at enabling women to initiate and conduct entrepreneurial activities in agriculture as a means of promoting their participation in the social and economic life of their communities. The strategy was to assist some 550 low-income women farmers, who had lost their productive assets and means of supporting their livelihoods, in establishing backyard vegetable gardens or cottage industries.
The project recruited six field extension agents - five women and one man - to work with 10 women's associations in each project site. Over a six month period, the project team helped 140 female-headed households establish backyard gardens. The women themselves selected and purchased the vegetable seeds and fruit tree seedlings they wanted to plant.
To ensure the sustainability of the home gardens, farmers who lacked a reliable source of water in the summer months were provided with cisterns or had their existing cisterns rehabilitated. In all, 33 new cisterns were built and 12 were rehabilitated. All 140 gardens were provided with a drip irrigation network.
To relieve water shortages, the project also provided 25 farmers with units that allowed them to treat and reuse on their gardens "grey waste water" – water used in the kitchen, laundry and for bathing that is relatively clean but, owing to the presence of soap, causes problems if used directly to irrigate plants.
FAO says the home gardens have enabled the beneficiaries to grow their own fruit and vegetables, which is of particular importance since local market prices for fresh produce are extremely high. The water cisterns have enabled female-headed households to have productive home gardens even in the summer, when water is scarce and expensive.
The project also provided 135 sheep, selected for optimal compatibility with the local environment, to 50 women farmers in the West Bank and Gaza Strip. The sheep supply the beneficiaries with milk for drinking and processing (into cheese, yoghurt and labaneh) and lambs for sale. FAO says that since the home gardens and small livestock activities are conducted close to the home, the women have been able to improve their household food security and income, while still looking after their children.
In addition, the project recruited two food processing technology consultants to train women's groups in food preservation and packaging methods. During the course, the beneficiaries were provided with the necessary tools for food processing, including kitchenware, ovens, glass jars, labels and other equipment. To demonstrate the skills acquired during the course - and to provide a marketing opportunity - a four-day exhibition was held in Ramallah, with the participation of 30 women's associations. FAO says improved coordination between women's groups will allow them to market better their products and harness their collective power when purchasing inputs and selling processed goods.
Skills acquired by the beneficiaries in food processing and preservation have also led to improved household food security and income. The women now buy fruit and vegetables when they are at their cheapest – at the end of the season – and preserve them for consumption at other times of the year.