Gender and development People

Posted July 1996

Women, Agriculture and Rural Development in the Near East: Findings of an FAO Study

Extracted from "Women, Agriculture and Rural Development: A Synthesis Report of the Near East Region" (FAO, 1995)


During 1993-94 FAO undertook a number of national studies on women's role in agriculture and rural development, within the context of its Programme of Activities in Support of Rural Women in Preparation for the Fourth World Conference on Women (4-15 September 1995, Beijing, China). The studies were prepared in order to ensure that information regarding the agricultural, forestry and fisheries sectors was included in the discussions at Beijing, and that the situation of rural women would be subsequently addressed in policy and decision-making debates at the national level. The following is a summary of the findings of the reports prepared for 17 countries in the Near East (Cyprus, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Mauritania, Morocco, Oman, Pakistan, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia, Turkey, United Arab Emirates, and Yemen).

The reports provide an analytical summary of both quantitative and qualitative data and information on women in agriculture, supplied by seventeen country coordinators (focal points) in the Near East region. The data clearly demonstrates that rural women play a significant role in agricultural and food production and in household food security, both as paid and unpaid labour. In countries such as Egypt, Morocco, Somalia and Turkey, women constitute over 50% of the total labour engaged in agriculture; while in Pakistan, Cyprus, Sudan, Tunisia, Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, at least one-third of the labour required to sustain agricultural production is provided by women.

Although the majority of rural households in the Near East are headed by men, the number of women-headed households is increasing as a result of, inter alia, male migration, widowhood and divorce. The percentage of female-headed households is highest in Pakistan and Sudan (25% and 23.8% respectively). Data provided on household consumption and expenditure shows that female-headed households are poorer than male-headed ones, as the latter are able to earn higher wages and thus capable of saving and consuming more.

Women in the region spend long hours every day in crop and livestock production. In crop production, they are involved in almost all aspects, with the exception of land preparation and other mechanized and capital-intensive activities. The tasks women perform are often non-mechanized and labour-intensive. Thus, women broadcast seeds and fertilizers by hand, hand weed and harvest, pick fruits and vegetables and carry produce on their back. Women also spend many hours in post-harvest activities such as threshing, cleaning, sorting and grading.

Women's role in livestock production is even greater, as they are often responsible for all aspects of animal husbandry, with the exception of herding and marketing. Hence, they feed and water, gather fodder, care for small ruminants, rabbits and poultry, clean stables, collect dung for fertilizers and fuel, care for the sick, pregnant and lactating animals, milk, make butter, cheese and ghee, and breed and select animals.

Compared to their critical roles in crop and livestock production, women's contribution to fisheries and agroforestry is less substantial. This is partly due to the limited role these sub-sectors play as a source of employment in many countries of the Near East region.

Rural women spend much time every day on agricultural and domestic tasks, with little time for rest or recreation. As paid and/or unpaid labour, women may spend up to 19 hours a day performing essential chores such as sowing, weeding, harvesting, animal husbandry, cleaning, fetching water and firewood, baking, cooking, sewing, child rearing, etc., to ensure the livelihood of the farming household. Nevertheless, data from the country papers indicates that women are not usually remunerated for their work, with clear disparities in wages between men and women in most countries of the region. In many countries women are often paid two-thirds or even half of the wages earned by men for the same task.

In spite of the labour and income contributions of women to the farming household, men appear to have predominant control over decision-making. However, more in-depth studies are needed to determine the precise roles and powers each gender has in household decision-making processes, as some studies have indicated that decisions are often made jointly between men and women. Due to cultural norms, women may wield more indirect power in several important matters such as family and household matters. Women also have a greater say in the aspects of production in which they are heavily engaged, such as poultry, dairy products and handicrafts. Unlike other pursuits in which men are involved, women are generally left alone to make their decisions regarding these enterprises, such as when to sell, how much to sell for, and what to do with the earnings. However, women are rarely consulted on issues such as loan and credit applications and management, or in other financial matters.

Women's access to, and control over, productive resources (especially land, labour, inputs and labour-saving technology) and support services (credit, extension, training and markets) is limited. Very few credit-lending arrangements have been set up especially for women farmers, and only a small number apply for credit. This is mainly attributed to weak institutional structures, traditional beliefs and cultural practices, a high degree of illiteracy, poor education, as well as women's lack of collateral. A number of encouraging initiatives have been taken by some countries to remedy this situation. For example, in Egypt, the recent establishment of a strong Policy and Coordination Unit for Women in Agriculture in the Ministry of Agriculture, has begun to address some of these constraints.

Although information on land ownership patterns by gender is scarce in the region, what little is available affirms that only a small proportion of arable land is owned by women. Women landowners often prefer to have their land managed by male relatives or transfer land titles to them in return for a portion of the land's remittances or other considerations. Women rarely purchase land and those who own land do so mainly through inheritance.

Extension services especially designed to target women farmers are also limited. In fact, the large majority of extension officers are male, who deal almost exclusively with male farmers since tradition often constrains interaction between women and outsiders. The few existing qualified female extension workers usually provide women with training in traditional home-based activities such as childcare and home management, with little or no training in the more entrepreneurial income-generating activities, such as crop and livestock production, agro-industries, protected agriculture, etc.

Data from the country papers emphatically asserts the need for energy and burden-saving technologies to reduce the heavy workload and time women spend on agricultural and domestic tasks. So far, techniques that have been developed to increase efficiency and productivity have often been taken over by men, leaving women to perform the more difficult and labour-intensive functions, at a time when new technologies are making old practices obsolete.

Female illiteracy in the Near East region, especially in the rural areas, is exceptionally high (reaching in some areas 90%) in spite of major wide-scale campaigns to address this serious issue. Furthermore, although primary school education is compulsory for both boys and girls in most countries, the data indicates that rural girls are at a disadvantage compared to rural boys and to their urban counterparts. In addition to the scarcity of schools at the village level, girls are discouraged to attend because of tradition, and are often pulled out of school to marry early or to contribute to the much-needed labour on the household farm.

Although the number of women seeking higher agricultural education in the region is on the rise, women's enrolment rates are lower than those of men. Women tend to specialize in selected subjects such as nutrition and agricultural economics, while men often specialize in agricultural engineering and crop and animal science.

Women are also underrepresented in power structures throughout the region. In ministries of agriculture, only a few women hold high-ranking policy-making positions (8.7%, 6%, and 4.8% in the Islamic Republic of Iran, Turkey and Egypt, respectively). A few women are likewise office-bearers, employees or members of agricultural organizations such as cooperatives and rural credit associations.

Most countries have recently established WID units or other machineries to empower women at various levels, including in their ministries of agriculture and related ministries with activities in rural areas. However, the number and scope of these units varies from country to country. With the exception of a few, the majority appear to be poorly funded and supported, often lacking clear-cut objectives and sufficient human and technical resources.

NGO support to rural women is minimal in the region. Most NGOs operating in rural areas are typically welfare-type institutions, with objectives geared to education, health, and family planning. A few have been active in promoting small-scale income-generating activities for women. However, these initiatives tend to benefit only a very small number of women and are limited to traditional activities such as sewing, embroidery, carpet-making and small-scale animal husbandry projects.

Most countries in the region have passed legislation stipulating equal pay for equal work, as well as gender equality in access to education, employment, ownership, social security benefits and legal rights. However, only three countries out of twenty-seven have ratified the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) without reservations. A few have implemented specific legal actions to secure women's rights and facilitate their access to land, livestock, credit, employment and membership in rural organizations. In addition, measures to increase public awareness of women's rights and responsibilities have been limited to one-time affairs, such as national workshops, seminars, publications, and a World Food Day dedicated to rural women.

The majority of the programmes and projects in support of rural women tend to be isolated and dispersed, and target only a small number of women beneficiaries. In general, these endeavours have not been innovative per se, but are rather first-time initiatives in, for example, training women, or in the creation of income-generating activities using mostly traditional female skills, such as sewing, weaving, cheese-making and poultry-rearing. Few projects have aimed at providing women with credit and up-to-date technology (e.g., biogas technology, mechanization, entrepreneurial and managerial skills, etc.) to increase their economic gains and improve the efficiency of their work. Moreover, none of the projects or initiatives appear to aim at 'mainstreaming' gender-sensitive considerations throughout agricultural and rural development approaches. As a result, attempts to improve the conditions of rural women in the Near East often remain small-scale, localized and isolated.

International support to rural women in the region is insufficient. Internationally-sponsored projects either target women directly in women's projects or indirectly by including a WID component to the projects which they support. In general, most endeavours have been limited to the elimination of illiteracy, and the improvement of education, health and family planning services, as well as training and funding of traditional small-scale income-generating activities.

An assessment of the future strategic goals and objectives provided by the seventeen participating countries indicates many commonalities in their vision for future action. All expressed the need for a broad-based action-oriented framework, with corresponding financial commitments, and for the empowerment of women in agriculture and the implementation of priority programmes and activities. This approach is expected to enhance regional cooperation and networking to redress gender gaps, and thus increase sustainable agricultural production and balanced human growth.

The thrust of the FAO's WID programme of activities in the Near East is in response to the above. It is geared to the development of a Regional Plan of Action for Women in Agriculture in the Near East (1996-2000), or RPAWANE 2000, through a participatory people-centred approach. RPAWANE 2000's main elements are based on substantive information collected and analyzed from the seventeen country papers, and as such, conform with the demands, needs and commitments of the Near East countries. These have been grouped in four priority areas of concern: collection, analysis and dissemination of gender-disaggregated statistical data; institutional support and capacity building; women in agriculture and sustainable development (with emphasis on gender, environment and population); and networking and people's participation.

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